Digitized by the Internet Archive
EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL
INTEGRATING QUEER THEOLOGY IN CONGREGATIONAL LIFE
IN METROPOLITAN COMMUNITY CHURCHES
KHARMA R. AMOS
MASTER'S OF DIVINITY, LANCASTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, 2002
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
DOCTOR OF MINISTRY
© Copyright by
KHARMA R. AMOS
The Rev. Dr. William M. Kondrath
Professor of Pastoral Theology
Dr. Kwok Pui Lan
Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality
This thesis project is dedicated to the gifted and generous members and friends of
The Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia
for their unparalleled humor, creativity, and courage,
and for their willingness to take a chance on a newbie.
Chapter 1: Queer: Defining the Indefinable 4
Chapter 2: Queer Theology 32
Chapter 3: Making the Connections: Developing Queer Spiritual Communities 59
Chapter 4: Leading Congregational Change in Queer Churches 87
This project would not have been possible without the persistent love and support
of my partner, Kala Payne, who continues to make my heart sing. Her willingness to
read drafts of these papers and to endure my anxiety as each deadline approached
provided me with the encouragement, wisdom, and comic relief I very much needed. My
mother, Wyndy Wyatt, was also an early reader. Her excessive praise of my efforts is
deeply rooted in parental bias, but nevertheless tremendously valued.
This thesis project would also not have been possible without the support,
flexibility, grace, and financial support of the congregation I am blessed to serve. The
members and friends of MCC NOVA were generous in allowing me the time required to
complete my coursework and write this thesis. Additionally (and no doubt to their
chagrin), they provided me with too many case studies and examples to include.
Particular mention is due Gail Minnick for agreeing to be my point of local accountability.
Her questions about my work were as challenging as they were aggravating, and they
helped me clarify my ideas and better articulate them.
I am grateful to my D. Min. Colloquium for helping me articulate the goals of my
thesis from the very beginning of this project, when 1 only had a vague notion of what I
was doing and feared I was in way over my head. I am particularly indebted to The Rev.
Drs. Ian Douglas and Joan Martin for their gentle guidance through the challenges of
project proposals, thesis outlines, and the logistics of long-distance study. I am grateful
to my advisor, The Rev. Dr. William Kondrath, for his patience, keen insights, and
commitment to bridge the persistent gap between the academy and the church. I am
grateful to the extraordinary Faculty of EDS, including Professors Kwok Pui Lan, Sheryl
Kujawa-Holbrook, Larry Wills, Ed Rodman, and Bill Kondrath for their expert tutelage,
challenging engagement, and willingness to help me mold the papers for their courses
into something that would help shape this project. Aura Fluet and James Gorman
provided invaluable writing and research advice.
Along the way, conversations with my friends and colleagues in the field,
including (in no particular order) and not limited to, The Revs. Nori Rost, Robert Griffin,
Durrell Watkins, Tom Bohache, Joe McMurray, Penny Nixon, Mona West, Robert Goss,
Robin Gorsline, Edgard Danielsen-Morales, and BK. Hipsher provided essential material
for reflection. Thank you for your wisdom and your commitment to queering the church.
Finally, I owe so much to The Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, whose encouragement when I
was still a teenager helped me begin discerning a call to the vocation of professional
ministry in MCC (which has been one of the greatest blessings of my life); and to The
Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski, a true mentor, whose constant support and encouragement
during the course of my ministry has meant more to me than I can say.
Final thanks go to Cindy Allan for her superb editing skills and willingness to
courageously yield a red pen with a complete lack of fear about damaging my sensitive
feelings. Any errors contained herein are solely mine.
The impetus for this thesis emerged from my desire to answer the question, "If
queer theology is worth anything at all, shouldn't it transform the way we live and
function as the church?" My bias, of course, is demonstrated in the phrasing of the
question itself. I am convinced that there are unique spiritual values and life lessons born
of queer experience that have as much liberative potential for our churches as they have
had for many of our lives. Queer theology — a liberation theology attentive to the
changing dynamics of gender, sexuality, and identity that strives to help people find
authenticity, vitality, and wholeness in body, mind, and spirit — cannot simply be a nice
theory put on a shelf or discussed in sterile academic settings. Rather, it has much
broader and more urgently needed implications; we must find ways to integrate it and
allow it to critique and shape our praxis. I am deeply troubled when Metropolitan
Community Church (MCC) congregations (who should know better!) uncritically
replicate the systems of ideological, theological, or structural exclusion from which they
themselves sought refuge and liberation. I want to answer this question because I feel
called to help congregations do this work, and because I sense that my own faith in the
usefulness of "church" altogether depends on it.
This project will not serve as a theological argument for the full inclusion of
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the church, though it assumes
this as a legitimate and sacred goal. Neither will it contain or function as a study of
homosexuality and the Bible; plenty has been written about that. While the work
presented here may have implications for church contexts other than MCC, it is
thoroughly rooted in the experience and reality of MCC congregations as I have known
them. Likewise, while it may have applications in other cultural contexts, it is limited in
its focus on dominant Western culture as observable in the contemporary United States.
Finally and regrettably, due to the constraints of time and maximum page limitations, the
project will not include a practical step-by-step guide or a proposal for a fiili
congregational life curriculum. It attempts to join an emerging conversation, the insights
of which must continue to be practically developed and applied. However, given those
limitations, I do hope that this work is faithful to the challenging reality of the tension-
filled, sacred, marginal, and erogenous zones of queer church experience.
According to the Vision Statement of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC),
we "are on a bold mission to transform hearts, lives, and history. We are a movement
that faithfully proclaims God's inclusive love for all people and proudly bears witness to
the holy integration of spirituality and sexuality." 1 This is an unapologetically ambitious,
optimistic, and forward-looking statement, which does seem to capture the heart of what
MCC congregations want to be about in the world. Because we live in a world in which
inclusive love has never been normative, as well as in a church and world in which the
Gfo-integration of spirituality and sexuality has been rigorously enforced, living into this
idealistic and courageous vision will require us to be continuously countercultural in our
approach to being "church." Among other things, this will require MCC congregations to
move beyond the uncritical adoption of theologies, liturgies, and normative structures of
dominant hetero-patriarchal Christian denominations invested in the status quo.
One important resource for this work can be found in the emerging field of queer
theology, which is shaped by the experiences of liberation and spiritual transformation of
those who have been marginalized due to their sexuality and/or gender. I believe queer
theology, if it can successfully be integrated with congregational praxis, holds as much
potential to liberate our churches as it has liberated many LGBT people. In this thesis, I
Metropolitan Community Churches, http://www.mccchurch.net (accessed November 10, 2007).
hope to help pastors and leaders understand queer theology so that they may use it as a
tool for analysis and reflection, and intentionally plan its integration in daily
To that end, I will begin with a task I wish were unnecessary — that of defining
the word "queer." Because queer is still a contentious word for many of our
congregations as a whole, and for many individuals even within congregations that have
managed to redeem the word and make it normative, I will spend time in Chapter 1
charting the evolution of the word queer, explaining some of the potential benefits of
applying queer theory, and being as clear as possible about how I will use the word
throughout this project. In Chapter 2, 1 will explore the emerging field of queer theology,
including the attempt to describe some core values and strategies it employs. In Chapter
3, 1 will make a case for the need to integrate queer theology in congregational life,
including noting some troublesome examples when this integration has not been the case.
Finally, in chapter 4, 1 will take a focused look at the question of leading congregational
change, since I understand this to be one of the primary areas requiring the attention of
pastors and leaders in MCC.
My original hope when planning this project was that I could go far enough to
suggest how queer theology might affect everything from how we read, preach, and teach
scripture to how we run board meetings and prepare budgets. That goal was overly
ambitious, as I confess I am wont to be. My revised goal is simply to make a
I will use "pastors" and "leaders" interchangeably in this work because I want to acknowledge
that while this is an essential calling of pastors, this is not a question or concern limited to the ordained
professional clergy. Although pastors are often given responsibility for the types of issues we will discuss,
lay leaders are as important and integral to the success of this process in congregations.
contribution to the conversation taking place in MCC about how we can practically
recognize and draw upon our unique perspectives and strengths, of which I believe queer
theology to be a primary tool, in order to live faithfully into our vision. I hope this may
also serve as a resource for bridging the gap between the clergy and the laity, between the
jargon of the academy and the language on the streets/in the pews, between erudite
talking heads and passionate working hearts. These false dichotomies exist both within
and between us, and it is only by transcending them that we can do this work.
QUEER: DEFINING THE INDEFINABLE
It is important to begin with the acknowledgement that a significant learning
curve exists between the individual members and leaders of local MCC congregations
and the emerging conversations about queer theology among academicians, theologians,
theorists, and practitioners. Before we can move the conversations beyond the hallowed
halls of seminaries or the pristine pages of professional journals in order for it to have
practical impact on the day-to-day life of congregations, we must define core terms and
concepts so that we can establish a common vocabulary for this broader dialogue. For
better or worse, the first place we have to start is with the word queer.
In contemporary discussions of sexuality, the word queer has a variety of
definitions and usages: from pejorative slurs against sexual/gender minorities to an
umbrella term for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons to the
descriptor of a particular intellectual theory. Even in MCC congregations, whose
members are primarily (though not exclusively) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or
otherwise queer-identified persons, use of the word queer is contentious. Not all people
share the same understanding of its meaning; use of the word triggers various emotional
responses; and there is hardly a unanimous embrace of the term as an adequate descriptor
of LGBT people or our churches. Therefore, in order to mine the potential of queer
theology, it is necessary to carefully define the word queer in order to remove obstacles
and advance the conversation. In this chapter, I will outline the variable definitions and
usages of queer, as well as survey the historical contexts that shaped them. I will
conclude by specifying the ways in which I will personally use the word throughout this
The Evolution of a Word
Reclaiming a Word with Rotten Roots
The word queer, as it relates to contemporary discussions of sexuality, is rooted in
its usage as a pejorative slur referring to particular individuals who did not conform to
societal sex/gender norms. There is some evidence that the word queer, traditionally
referring to that which "differed in some way from what is usual or normal," was used
by some homosexual men in the 1910's and 1920's to describe themselves. George
Chauncey observed that in pre- World War II New York, men whose sexual interests
differentiated them from other men would usually call themselves queer. However, by
far the most prominent early usage of the word to refer to those with same-sex attractions
or non-normative expressions of gender was as a derogatory epithet hurled by others, not
as a self-proclaimed identity. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality indicates that in
twentieth-century America, "queer has probably been the most popular vernacular term
Mernam- Webster Online Dictionary, http://m-w.com (accessed February 2, 2006).
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male
World, 1890 - 1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 101. It is worthy of note that the source of this
differentiation was generally not the biological sex of their sexual partners, but rather the gender role they
assumed in those relationships (i.e., a "feminine" gender presentation). For a fuller explanation, see
George Chauncey, "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the
Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era," in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay
and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. (New York:
NAL Books, 1989), 297.
of abuse for homosexuals."' This harmful use of the word queer is still felt by a number
of people today. Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of the contemporary queer
theory/studies movement, describes her own experience of the word's harmful origins:
Consider the word queer, which thirty years ago (even twenty, even fifteen ago)
was considered profoundly derogatory and frightening as a speech act. I
remember living in an era of great fear of the word, knowing I was eligible for it,
thinking that once it actually landed on me I would be branded forever and that
the stigma would do me in completely.
Butler's experience is hardly isolated or unique. Those whose minds and bodies bear the
memory of "queer" being used against them or those they love to stigmatize and harm are
very vocal in expressing their dislike of the word still today. In my work as the pastor of
a predominantly LGBT congregation, for example, I have had many conversations with
people who resist the use of this word. In 2005, my congregation conducted some
strategic visioning work as we explored again questions about our unique identity,
character, and calling as a community. Following this work, they voted overwhelmingly
to modify our mission statement, in part, by replacing the words "lesbian, gay, bisexual,
and transgender people as well as our families, friends, and allies" with the words "queer
and queer-friendly people." The dialogue about this was extensive, and a few members
of the community (primarily individuals of fifty years of age or older) agreed to the
change only reluctantly, expressing the pain they still felt was associated with queer. It is
Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ed. Wayne R. Dynes (Garland, NY: Taylor & Francis, 1990),
6 Judith Butler, "Changing the Subject: Judith Butler's Politics of Radical Resignification,"
interview with Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham, in The Judith Butler Reader, ed. Sara Salih with Judith
Butler (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 351. (Italics in original.)
also worth noting that, at the time, some enlightened straight-identified members of the
community were also hesitant to use the word, not wanting to participate in harmful
However, many others have sought to "reclaim" the word from its derogatory
roots and use it for personal empowerment. Butler herself went through such a
transformation of thought regarding the word queer.
Ten or twelve years ago when queer started to happen as a term, people would
ask, "What do you think, should we produce a journal called Queer Theory?'' 1 I
thought, "My God, do we have to use that word?" I was still in its grip. I was
still thinking, "Must we take on this word? Isn't it too injurious? Why do we
need to repeat it at all?" I still think that there are words that are in fact so
injurious that it's very hard to imagine that they could be repeated in a productive
way; however, I did note that using the word queer again and again as part of an
affirmative practice in certain contexts helped take it out of an established context
of being exclusively injurious, and it became about reclaiming language, about a
certain type of courage, about a certain kind of opening up of the term, about the
possibility of transforming stigmatization into something more celebratory.
The attempt to reclaim the word queer as a value-positive and empowering word
is a task held in common by all of the definitions and uses of the term included here.
However, it is important to explicitly maintain the memory of the earlier and defamatory
uses of the word. This history not only matters to those who continue to bear wounds
associated with it, but it is also integral to the continued evolution of the word as well as
the individuals, ideas, and interests it represents.
Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (Updated and Expanded; Boston:
Beacon Press, 1990), 90. Grahn's work attempts to reclaim a number of gay and lesbian epithets in a
comparative cultural study. On the topic of reclaiming epithets as words of empowerment, see also Julia
Penelope, Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory (Freedom, California: Crossing Press, 1992).
8 Butler, "Changing the Subject," 351. (Italics in original.)
An Expanding Umbrella
A popular, yet somewhat controversial, use of the word queer is "as an umbrella
term for a number of dissimilar subjects, whose collectivity is underwritten by mutual
engagement in non-normative sexual practices or identities." ' Queer in this sense may be
used to refer to gays and lesbians as well as bisexual and transgender persons. For some,
this makes queer a "coalition word" that brings these diverse people together, usually for
the purposes of political solidarity and action. 10 As the need for political coalitions has
grown in recent decades, the specific categories of "identity" included in the term queer
have likewise expanded. 1 1
While this use of the word queer is favored by many who find it less cumbersome
than an ever-expanding acronym (i.e., LGBTIQA ) or series of sexual/gender identities,
it is critiqued by those who claim it blurs necessary distinctions that exist among and
between these disparate groups. For example, David Phillips argues that
9 Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press,
Robert Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 39. At the time this book was published, the author referred only to gays and
lesbians, not bisexual or transgender individuals. In more recent works, Goss explicitly includes these
categories of people. This is indicative of the expanding nature of the term queer, which directly follows
the expansion of the articulated categories of sexual and gender differentiation that have generally come to
be included in the gay and lesbian liberation movement.
It should be explicitly noted, however, that is has never expanded quite enough to be truly
inclusive. Even as various groups are added, there always exist others who are not mentioned and whose
particular interests are not included.
This partial list generally refers to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex
persons, along with those who are either questioning (yet to claim a sexual orientation or identity) or queer
(in the sense I will later define of transgressing all of these categories), as well as allies in the liberation
the inclusionist ambitions of queer — the attempt to represent not only gays and
lesbians, transgenderists, and even heterosexuals as 'straight identified queers', et
cetera — has had the effect of not only effacing the specific political identities,
needs and agendas of these various groups but that, in doing so, queer has
produced a new closet as any specific self-identification as either gay or lesbian
(predicated upon same-sex practices) is disavowed.
Lesbian feminists also raise a particular critique that this umbrella use of the term
queer, as the similar and earlier use of the term "gay" to refer to both homosexual men
and women, threatens to silence the specific voice and concerns of women. For example,
in Adrienne Rich's widely quoted essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian
Existence," she claims that because lesbianism can be best understood in terms of
categories of gender, lesbians are necessarily distanced from full affiliation with gay
Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through
"inclusion" as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian
existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to erase female
reality once again. ... But there are differences: women's lack of economic and
cultural privilege relative to men; qualitative differences in female and male
relationships — for example, the patterns of anonymous sex among male
homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual
attractiveness. I perceive the lesbian experience as being, like motherhood, a
profoundly female experience, with particular oppressions, meanings, and
potentialities we cannot comprehend as long as we simply bracket it with other
sexually stigmatized existences. 14
While Rich's critique predates the contemporary debate about the word "queer," it
certainly remains germane to these discussions. I include it here because it strikes at the
13 David Phillips (1994), "What's So Queer Here? Photography at the Gay and Lesbian Marti
Gras," Eyeline 26, pp. 16-19, as quoted in Jagose, 112.
Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Signs: Journal of Women
in Culture and Society 5 (summer 1980). (Italics in original.)
heart of the feminist critique about the assumption of "lesbian" into any broader category,
especially those including men, which has remained a largely consistent argument.
Similar arguments are occasionally raised by bisexuals, as well as transgender
persons. However, in the latter case, there appears to be much more willingness to notice
the complex relationships between sex and gender that label all of us queer if we
transgress sex/gender norms in any way. For example, transgender activist Leslie
Feinberg argues that "while the lesbian, gay, bi, and trans populations do not experience
identical oppressions, or voice the same grievances or demands, in the current-day United
States, our communities have been strengthened by forming coalitions ...."
In spite of the critique offered by feminists and others, the word queer is gaining
prominence in its popular usage as just such an umbrella term. It is also worthy of note
that this usage often occurs quite apart from academic discourse about queer theory, to
which I will soon turn. Suffice it to say at this juncture that this popular use of the word
queer as an umbrella term does not necessarily include those whose expression of gender
and/or sexuality might be considered "non-normative sexualities," such as sado-
masochism, pornography, butch/fem, certain trans- practices, prostitution, polyamory, or
15 Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 98.
Jagose, 64. (Emphasis mine.) In practice, many people who are open about sexual practices like
these are often explicitly or implicitly shunned or excluded from queer-identified communities. Often, this
is motivated by religiously-based judgmentalism, and/or an unwillingness to enter deeply into complex
discussions about sexual ethics, which includes questioning the automatic assumptions about what is or is
not ethical as determined by the dominant and dominating forces of hetero-patriarchal normativity.
The Liberation Movements
No discussion about the contemporary definition or use of the word queer is
complete without at least a brief historical survey of gay and lesbian liberation
movements in the past several decades. As impossible as it is to completely describe
something as nebulous as the evolution of these movements, they are the direct
precursors to modern academic gender/queer theories, as well as major influences on the
present-day political and ecclesial context. Therefore, they constitute a necessary
knowledge base for full engagement of the queer question.
We might begin by acknowledging that current conversations about sexuality and
gender, in general, and homosexuality, in particular, are a relatively recent phenomenon.
So, while many scholars of diverse disciplines have theorized about the existence of
same-sex behavior in all periods of history, efforts to recapture a "gay past" are, at best,
problematic. However, once "homosexual" crystallized as an "identity" (i.e., when one
could conceive of actually being a homosexual instead of simply participating in same-
I refer here primarily to the United States, though some parallels may exist particularly in other
countries heavily influenced by Western thought and tradition. While there is great need to address these
questions in other world contexts, it is beyond the scope of my current inquiry. Excellent work is being
done, however, by a number of scholars, including these recently consulted works: Rose Wu, Seeking An
Alternative Interpretation of Theology and Ministry with Sexual Minorities in Hong Kong: A Prophetic
Vision of a Liberating and Inclusive Christian Community, (D.Min. Thesis, Episcopal Divinity School,
1988), as well as a number of articles in A Queer World: The Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader,
ed. Martin Duberman (New York: New York University Press, 1997) and Hidden from History:
Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past.
Robert Padgug, "Sexual Matters: Rethinking Sexuality in History, ,, in Hidden from History:
Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, 54-64. Padgug argues against scholars like John Boswell, who
attempt to retroject a sense of homosexual or gay identity into historical contexts that had no such concepts.
This raises what is still an important distinction between sexual or gendered behavior and the question of
whether or not any sort of fixed identity flows from that behavior.
sex acts), religious and legal persecution against homosexuals began to increase. 19
Consequently, there quickly emerged a reactive movement that sought to recognize
homosexuality as a natural human phenomenon. Prior to this time, medical and
scientific communities directed the primary discourse about homosexuality, usually by
pathologizing it and treating it as a disorder.
Homophile organizations began to emerge as an organized protest of this anti-
homosexual persecution and institutionalized prejudice. The first such organization, the
Scientific Humanitarian Committee, was founded in 1897 by German neurologist
Magnus Hirschfield. The primary aim of this group was to affect legislative change by
altering the penal code. Hirschfield argued that because homosexuality was both
congenital and harmless, its criminalization caused the needless suffering of
The earliest recorded homophile organization in the United States, the Chicago
Society for Human Rights, had similar goals. The 1924 charter outlined a desire to
19 Jagose, 23.
20 Ibid., 22.
The use of the word homophile was intended to (a) move away from an exclusive focus on
sex" and (b) avoid association with the medical diagnosis of homosexuality as a disorder.
John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, 1864- J 935 (Rev.
Edition; Ojai, California: Times Change Press, 1995). As quoted in Jagose, 23.
"promote and protect the interests" of homosexuals. Much more significant were later
homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society (for men) and the Daughters of
Bilitis (for women), founded in 1951 and 1955, respectively. Both organizations sought
equal rights by mobilizing their constituencies through a process of "fostering collective
identity among homosexuals," including community education and support aimed at
asserting the normality of same-sex attraction. Both organizations tended to distance
themselves from persons whose behavior or identity threatened to compromise their
ability to assimilate. Both organizations ultimately struggled to maintain an active
membership, though their work was foundational for the next evolution in the liberation
!3 Jagose, 24. It is worthy of mention that one of the strategies employed by this organization was
to admit that homosexuals have "mental and psychic abnormalities." This demonstrates the nascent
beginnings of a movement still dominated by the projections placed upon it by the medical/scientific
community. While it is easy and tempting to critique this approach from a modern or postmodern
perspective, this may illustrate a quite natural evolutionary progression in the gay liberation movement.
24 Ibid., 25.
Ibid., 24-27. This assimilationist/accomodationist strategy was predicated on the argument that
homosexuals are "just like everyone else" and therefore, deserve the same rights afforded to others. While
there are many legitimate present-day critiques of this strategy, it is arguably a politically efficacious one.
In fact, the same strategy is still being employed by those who advocate for same-sex marriage rights today.
I recently participated in a "Lobby Day" for Equality at the Virginia legislature. Much of the printed
material and public statements of contemporary LGBT activists (I use LGBT — not queer — intentionally
because it most accurately describes the character, interests, and strategy of these activists, in my
experience) is remarkably similar to the promotional literature of these early homophile organizations. The
continuity of current same-sex marriage advocates with these early groups (to which I will later return)
might also be evidenced by the fact Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, were
the first same-sex couple in the United States to have their marriage recognized by a government entity in
Ibid., 24-27. This included anyone who transgressed notions of gender propriety, such as drag
queens or butch women. In the case of the Daughters of Bilitis, this was also true of "working class dykes"
whose sense of community often centered on the bar scene.
It is generally agreed that a new era in gay liberation was initiated in June of
1969. When police raided the Stone Wall Inn, a New York gay and drag bar, patrons
resisted arrest. Consequently, several days of public riots ensued. Thus,
Stonewall functions in a symbolic register as a convenient if somewhat spurious
marker of an important cultural shift away from assimilationist politics and
quietist tactics, a significant if mythological date for the origins of the gay
While there were other events that previewed this shift, the Stonewall Riot was uniquely
able to inspire a nationwide grass-roots movement. Drawing on the success of other such
militant movements (e.g., black militants as well as new left, antiwar, and student
movements), gays entered a period characterized by "coming out" as an in-your-face
Gay liberationists were no longer content to work for tolerance and acceptance;
instead, they sought to challenge conventional knowledge about sex, gender, monogamy,
and the sanctity of the law. Many liberationists took great pride in scandalizing society
with the difference their "gay identity" signaled, eschewing any attempts to gain
legitimacy through claims of sameness.
27 Ibid., 30.
John D'Emilio, "Gay Politics and Community in San Francisco Since World War II," in Hidden
from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and
George Chauncey, Jr. (New York: NAL Books, 1989), 466. See also Denis Altman, Homosexual:
Oppression and Liberation (New introduction by Jeffrey Weeks; New York: New York University Press,
29 Jagose, 3 1 .
A gay identity was a revolutionary identity: what it sought was not social
recognition but to overthrow the social institutions that pathologized
homosexuality. In so far as homosexuality did not conform to normative
understandings of sex and gender, in liberationist discourse it was often
represented as heralding the subversion of those categories, and enabling a new
and unmediated sexuality for all people.
While small numbers of women were always present in the early homophile and
gay liberation movements, others believed these movements were insensitive to the
unique role gender played in their work and political advocacy. As Jeffrey Weeks asserts,
Lesbians and gays are not two genders within one sexual category. They have
different histories, which are differentiated because of the complex organization
of male and female identities, precisely along the lines of gender.
As an alternative to what they considered the androcentric nature of the gay liberation
movement, some women found the burgeoning women's movement a more suitable
venue for their activism and advocacy. However, the women's movement was often
intolerant of the specific concerns of lesbians. For example, the largest and most
influential women's liberation group in the United States (i.e., the National Organization
for Women) often expected those lesbians who were involved in the organization to keep
their sexuality secretive since it was potentially damaging.
30 Ibid., 37.
Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, & Modern Sexualities (Boston:
Routlege & K. Paul, 1985), 203.
32 Jagose, 46.
The lesbian feminist movement was bom at the intersection of competing -isms,
namely, the sexism lesbians observed in the gay liberation movement and the
hetero sexism they found in the women's liberation movement By no means united about
their direction, or even the question of what constitutes a "lesbian identir . esbians
began to as sen their ability and responsibility to self-detennination in these matters.""
S everal lesbian feminist organizations "ere formed as a result, including the
Radicalesbians in New York, the Furies Collective in Washington. D.C.. and Gay
Women's Liberation in San Franciscc
Adrienne Rich's previously cited essay on "Compulsory Heterosexuality and
Lesbian Existence" 1 ° S : j > was a semmal v. ?-k ::: lesbian femmism She arauea ma:
because :■: me complex ar.a msiclic as narme :: sexasrr i. gender musr be me pram an
identification category" for lesbians instead of sexuality. Rich la:er amends mas view in a
footnote added la me essay in 1986. in which she states. **I now think we have much to
learn from both the uniquely female aspects of lesbian Experience ana from ne complex
'gay identity we share with gay men
Not all lesbian feminists experienced the same evolution in thought. In fan. mere
remain a number ;: lesbian feminists '.vac argue ma: affinity ber.veen lesbians ana ga;
males is an impossibility, precise!) because aa. males are cc mnlici: mm aamaamn a
structures of male domination."' 7 eraars me mcs: .en em en: aa ;a:e : mas r ; sunn is
- - - - — . -
' :::: . --"
: s . j - t
Sheila Jeffreys, who argues passionately and often that gay men, even more so than
straight men, epitomize patriarchal values and male supremacy. ' This point of view
grows out of the early separatist agenda of certain lesbian feminists and takes it to a
whole new level.
The Impact of AIDS
The emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s impacted the liberation
movements considerably. Due to many factors, not the least of which was the persistent
misrecognition of AIDS as a "gay disease" in the public sphere, anti-gay and homophobic
forces were emboldened. The few newly acquired citizenship rights that the liberation
movements had managed to secure for gays and lesbians were under fierce attack.
Additionally, the incredibly devastating impact that the HIV/AIDS crisis had on the
homosexual communities, particularly in urban areas, led to new alliances between gay
men and lesbians as well as new partnerships between (some) government agencies and
gay and lesbian communities.
One noticeable contribution that AIDS made to discussions about sexuality and
gender in general was the need to be publicly explicit. In other words, as Lauren Berlant
Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: a Feminist Perspective on the Lesbian Sexual Revolution
(Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 1993).
38 Jagose, 94.
Barry D. Adam, "From Liberation to Transgression and Beyond: Gay, Lesbian and Queer
Studies at the Turn of the Century," in Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies (Thousand Oaks, California:
SAGE, 2002), 17.
and Michael Warner observe, AIDS forced discourse about sexuality itself out of the
AIDS ... forced the issue of translating queerness into the national scene. AIDS
made those of us who confronted it realize the deadly stakes of discourse; it made
us realize the public and private unvoiceability of so much that mattered, about
anger, mourning, and desire; and it made us realize that different frames of
reference — science, news, religion, ordinary homophobia — compete and that
their disjunction is lethal .... AIDS taught us the need to be disconcertingly
explicit about such things as money and sexual practices, for as long as
euphemism and indirection produce harm and privilege.
Shifting Political Strategies
The last two decades of the twentieth century included at least two simultaneous
and contradictory trajectories of the liberation movements. On the one hand was the
direct descendant of Stonewall style gay liberation, perhaps best epitomized in the radical
confrontationist strategy of certain AIDS activists. The optimum and earliest example of
this was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), formed in 1987 by those who
were outraged at the United States government's mismanagement of the AIDS crisis.
ACT UP aimed to help people harness their anger at their own oppression and funnel it
into a practice of solidarity for social change. The result was a series of angry, vocal
protests of governmental, religious, and public leaders and institutions deemed complicit
40 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?,"
Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 110, no. 3 (May 1995): 345.
"ACT UP Capsule History," http://www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html (accessed
Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto, 56.
in the growing AIDS crisis. 4 This urgent political strategy was also embraced by groups
like Queer Nation, formed in 1990 by members of ACT UP who were victims of anti-gay
violence. Queer Nation's popular protest slogan "We're here, we're queer, get used to
it!" illustrates the group's desire to reclaim the word queer as a value-positive term as
well as their unapologetic approach of rowdy sexual openness and radical
On the other hand was a retreat to strategies similar to earlier homophile
movements by moving away from militant confrontation and radicalism. 45 In direct
opposition to the politics of groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation, these reformist
movements sought a quieter and gentler approach to influencing social change. Realizing
that "the political strategies that proved most viable in liberal, democratic societies were
typically civil rights arguments reliant on judicial and legislative reform," this brand of
gay and lesbian politics became "more domesticated" and "mature" and relied on
homosexuality being constructed as a minority category parallel to ethnic minorities. 4
Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign 47 and the National Gay and Lesbian
Taskforce are perhaps the best examples of this trajectory in the liberation movements.
43 The popular protest chant, "ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHTS AIDS," sums up the general
sentiments of the group as well as their style of engagement.
Susan Stryker, "Queer Nation," December 2004, glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/queer_nation.html
(accessed February 11, 2006).
45 Adam, 16.
46 Ibid., 17.
Human Rights Campaign Official Website, http://hrc.org (accessed February 1 1 , 2006).
National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce Official Website, http://thetaskforce.org (accessed
The Contribution of Queer Theory
Alongside — yet often quite disconnected from — the evolution of the political
aspirations and strategies of the various liberation movements, a significant discussion
about sexuality and gender took place inside the academy. Gay and lesbian studies
emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a distinct field of intellectual inquiry and research,
which was characterized initially by a flurry of excited interest in recovering a lost
"history." 49 This research was largely predicated upon the essentialist assumption that
there was a discoverable homosexual throughout history and around the world. Very
quickly, the limits and shortcomings of this essentialism became clear. Other social
constructionist scholars, building on the seminal work of Michel Foucault, observed
that while same-sex expressions of desire may be seen throughout history, they vary
widely depending on their social and historical contexts and cannot be considered
synonymous with the modern sense of homosexuality as an identity. l In the words of
The question is not whether sexual love between same-sex partners has occurred
throughout history (because it surely has) but whether sexual desire, love, and
activity alone constitute a sexual identity.
49 Adam, 17.
50 Perhaps the most well known historian to adopt this approach is John Boswell.
51 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (1st American Ed.; New York:
Pantheon Books, 1978).
52 Weeks, 203.
Laurel Schneider, "Queer Theory," in Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation, ed. A.
K. A. Adam (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000), 208.
These debates about the existence, viability, and efficacy of any essential "identity"
began to dominate academic discourse. Queer theory is the latest development in this
Queer theory, as a distinct discipline, was set in motion in 1990 by the pioneering
work of Judith Butler. 54 Relying heavily on the theories of Foucault, Butler demonstrates
the ways in which marginalized identities are complicit with the very regimes they seek
to critique and counter (i.e., patriarchy and heterosexism). Specifically, she claims that
feminism works against its own explicit goals if it accepts the category "woman" as its
foundational grouping. She writes:
The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become "intelligible"
requires that certain kinds of "identities" cannot "exist" — that is, those in which
gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not
"follow" from either sex or gender.
Butler's critique of gender as "a regulatory construct that privileges heterosexuality" not
only presents a challenge to feminism, but also to any other liberation movement that
relies on claims of an essential or unified gender/sexual identity in need of liberation.
Therefore, whereas both the lesbian and gay liberation movements "were committed
fundamentally to the notion of identity politics in assuming identity as the necessary
54 Adam, 18.
55 Jagose, 83.
>6 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge,
>7 Jagose, 83.
prerequisite for effective political intervention," queer theory deconstructs and exposes as
fictitious any such categories of identification.
The word queer, as it is used in queer theory, is a term that ultimately resists all
attempts at its own definition. Berlant and Warner offer what they call a "kind of anti-
encyclopedia entry" for the word: "queer theory is not the theory of anything in particular
and has no precise bibliographic shape." 59 Even so, certain things can be said about
queer theory. In addition to noting that a constant feature of queer theory is its critique of
identity politics, Laurel Schneider observes, "Queer theory is not just for or about so-
called homosexuals. It is critical theory concerned principally with cultural deployments
of power through social constructions of sexuality and gender." 60 Obviously, the roots of
this concern are evident in queer's historical evolution from gay and lesbian liberation as
well as in feminist studies, which are likewise concerned precisely with this critique of
"normative" sex/gender constructs. Queer theory comes into its own and becomes most
useful, however, when its hermeneutic is applied to subjects, expressions, and cultures
that are presumed to be general or natural, but are, in fact, riddled with the assumptions
of heteropatriarchal normativity. For example, using the term "queer commentary" to
refer to a body of literary work that applies the hermeneutic of queer theory, Berlant and
We can say that queer commentary has been animated by a sense of belonging to
a discourse world that only partly exists yet. This work aspires to create publics,
publics that can afford sex and intimacy in sustained, unchastening ways; publics
58 Ibid., 77.
59 Berlant and Warner, 344.
60 Schneider, 206.
that can comprehend their own differences of privilege and struggle; publics
whose abstract spaces can also be lived in, remembered, hoped for. By publics
we do not mean populations of self-identified queers. Nor is the name queer an
umbrella term for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered. Queer publics
make available different understandings of membership at different times, and
membership in them is more a matter of aspiration than it is the expression of an
identity or a history. Through a wide range of mongrelized genres and media,
queer commentary allows a lot of unpredictability in the culture it brings into
As soon as one attempts to define queer, then, its definition becomes unstable.
Unwilling to be domesticated, queer is a transgressive term always pushing the margins,
always rendering any essential categories of identity ambiguous, always seeking to
"address the full range of power-ridden normativities of sex." " Queer is a versatile word
used alternately as an adjective to describe certain theories and strategies, as a noun to
represent a certain body of work or even certain boundary-blurring people/publics, and as
a verb to describe the intent to "mess with" and deconstruct any normative
understandings of sexuality, gender, and relationship that claim to be self-evident or
It should be explicitly noted that the queer project's critique of identity politics
has a sharp edge for many who are invested in contemporary gay and lesbian liberation
movements. Specifically, queer calls into question the creation of any new norms that
would legitimate persons with same-sex attractions or their relationships by uncritically
buying into the systems and constructs that maintain and mimic the foundations of
heterosexist privilege. " The current push for same-sex marriage equality is perhaps the
61 Berlant and Warner, 344.
62 Ibid., 346.
63 Jagose, 92.
best and most readily accessible example. In partial critique of the agenda to gain same-
sex couples the right to marry, some feminist and queer scholars, like Mary Hunt, have
argued that gays and lesbians (and all people) may be better served by the open challenge
of the "broken model" of heterosexual marriage as it exists today, with its accompanying
social and economic privileges as well as its soaring divorce rates, rather than the
creation of a new hegemony that would force all relationships (homo- or hetero-sexual)
into this broken and binary model. 64 This is a wonderful example of the ways in which
the queer project might be used to creatively expand the discussion beyond specific
identity-based "individual rights campaigns" (i.e., civil rights) to include the broader goal
of relational justice for all (i.e., human rights). 65
One of the most promising contributions of queer seems to be just such an
expansive application of its theory. As queer is occasionally venturing beyond a
predominant focus on issues of sexuality, it is also offering a helpful critique of other
identities aside from sex and gender. For example, Eve Sedgwick claims that recent
queer work is moving outward
along dimensions that can't be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all: the
ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality criss-cross with these and other
identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses, for example. Intellectuals and
artists of color whose sexual self-definition includes "queer" ... are using the
leverage of "queer" to do a new kind of justice to the fractal intricacies of
language, skin, migration, and state.
"Roundtable Discussion: Same-Sex Marriage," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20, no. 2
65 Mary Hunt, "Roundtable Discussion: Same-Sex Marriage," 91.
As quoted in Jagose, 99. (Italics in original.)
Though not always an explicit objective of queer theorists, the cause of creating more just
relationships and a more just society in which power can be equally accessible and
mutually shared seems central to some of queer theory's newer trends. In refusing to be
compartmentalized and resisting whatever might be considered normal, queer theory
hopes to bring a new world into being, one in which multiple identities and ways of being
can be valued without individuals having to conform to fixed notions that necessarily
exclude those who cannot or choose not to do so.
However, there are also some legitimate critiques made about queer theory that
question its ability to live into this more expansive potential. For example, while
acknowledging "the radical potential of queerness to challenge and bring together all
those deemed marginal and all those committed to liberatory politics," Cathy J. Cohen
argues that the "problem . . . with such a conceptualization and expectation of queer
identity and politics is that in its present form queer politics has not emerged as an
encompassing challenge to systems of domination and oppression." Namely, it has
tended to ignore or elide issues of race, class, and (to some extent) gender as distinct
categories of identity within the queer community. Cohen, who personally finds the
word queer "fraught with unspoken assumptions that inhibit [its] radical potential," warns,
In its current rendition, queer politics is coded with class, gender, and race
privilege, and may have lost its potential to be a politically expedient organizing
tool for addressing the needs — and mobilizing the bodies — of people of color.
67 Cathy J. Cohen, "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer
Politics?" in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 24.
68 Ibid. 34-35.
Cohen's point is well made. The radical potential of queer must include a sustained
analysis and understanding of the intersectionality of identities and oppressions that
characterize the reality and messiness of life for individuals. In an effort to foreground
this urgent objective, E. Patrick Johnson has coined the word "quare" (based on his
grandmother's "thick, black, southern" vernacular pronunciation of queer) "to critique
stable notions of identity and, at the same time, to locate racialized and class
knowledges. " Johnson values the "inclusivity and playful spirit" of queer, but wants to
counteract its "homogenizing tendencies" that obscure the realities of racism, classism,
and sexism operative in the queer community. While appreciating Johnson's use of
"quare" and wholeheartedly agreeing with both his and Cohen's call to examine and deal
with the unchecked racism, classism, and sexism present in much queer theorizing, I
cannot yet disregard queer as a useful term. I am not yet ready to abandon the idealism
of its radical aspirations, for one thing, and the term "quare" is so new and unfamiliar that
its introduction in the day-to-day life of my congregation would hinder what progress we
are making to establish a shared vocabulary for genuine conversation and dialogue. That
being said, I am fully supportive of the agenda behind the use of "quare" and am
committed to openly discussing the complex intersections of heterosexism, sexism,
racism, and classism (among forms of oppression) that exist. Irene Monroe offers one
69 E. Patrick Johnson, "'Quare' Studies, Or (almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I
Learned from My Grandmother," in Black Queer Studies : A Critical Anthology (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2005), 126-7. (Italics for emphasis.)
70 Ibid. 127.
As a fractured group both politically and socially, African-American LGBT
people reside as resident aliens who too often live bifurcated existences in both
communities. While our black skin ostensibly gives us residence in our black
communities, our sexual orientation, most times, evicts us from them. And while
our sexual orientation gives us residence in the larger LGBT community, racism
constantly thwarts any efforts for coalition building, which weakens the larger
movement for sexual equality.
In articulating these experiences, LGBT people of color are raising a necessary and
critical challenge to queer discourse by insisting that we understand how these multiple
sites of identity and oppression complicate our coalition building and frustrate our
cooperative work for justice. I believe this work must become an integral focus of the
In My Own Words
Because I am interested in investigating what a broadly applied "queer theology"
would look like in the day-to-day life of an individual faith congregation, it is imperative
that I am able to describe exactly what / mean by queer. At one time or another, I have
probably used queer in all of the senses outlined above, with the notable exception of
using it pejoratively in order to shame and denigrate those marginalized by their
sexual/gender expression or identity. Because I live and work in multiple contexts and
am in conversation with multiple and diverse communities of discourse, I continue to use
the word queer in different ways according to context and suitability. I try to be explicit
about how I'm using the word when this is happening, or at least to remain mindful
"African-American LGBT People Saying it Loud," in The Witness [database online]. Cambridge,
Massachusetts June 11, 2002 (accessed January 21, 2007). Available from
myself of both its intended and actual effect. For example, when I am preaching, I
often use the word "queer" instead of "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc." because
in my congregation, for some, this word still needs to be liberated and because I want to
encourage those who are able to explore the limitations of these individual identity labels
(LGBT) to do so. In many ways, the act of "reclaiming" the word must necessarily
precede any further dialogue about its other meanings and their potential applications.
I typically do not intend to use the word queer only as a broad umbrella for LGBT
persons, though I am somewhat comfortable with this usage because — for better or
worse — this is a common and widely accepted use in the vernacular of a number of
communities, including many MCC congregations. Additionally, the more edgy use of
the term (to which I will soon turn) does not seem to preclude it. In my current context
(i.e., twenty- first century United States), if someone identifies as a lesbian, gay man, or
bisexual or transgender person, they necessarily transgress and live outside the realm of
what is considered normative. Therefore, queer can be used for all of these categories, at
least, as an adjectivally apt term. However, this is not the primary way in which I intend
to use the word.
Queer, for me, is a word that must always exist in some continuity with gay and
lesbian history, and — more specifically — with gay and lesbian liberation movements.
Queer cannot yet (if ever) be completely separated from the historical and lived
2 Sometimes I use the word to intentionally scandalize or titillate in situations where I am fairly
certain it is understood primarily as insult in order to challenge this understanding. At other times, I will
very much want to use the word queer because it more accurately describes what I intend to say, but
because I am mindful of how it will actually land on the ear and heart of the listener, I refrain. I believe
there is a great power in language that can be used for good or for ill. I aspire to nurture within myself a
healthy respect for this power, and to use it in ways that are not harmful, ways that are ultimately liberative,
ways that may stretch but not break the limits of a conversation and/or relationship.
experience of individual gay men and lesbians who were/are oppressed by societies and
institutions intolerant of same-sex relationships or an individual's inability/choice not to
conform to rigid expectations of gender performance and propriety. Because queer is
rooted in the hope of creating a more affirming and equitable world for LGBT people,
queer is a word that should maintain a preferential option for sexual/gender justice, as
well as an embodied, real-world connection to actual individual lives affected by present
Queer is not identical with gay and lesbian liberation history, however. Queer is
the best descriptor I know of the space-between — that complex and tension-filled chasm
that separates the articulation and liberation of these non-normative sexual/gender
identity categories (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) and the exposure of their
inadequacy to fully categorize or describe most individuals. Queer is the elusive force
that keeps these categories from becoming fixed or essential. In organic terms, queer is
something of an anti-coagulant; in terms of the illusory black/white dichotomy, queer is
grey area. In the same way that queer originally expanded the realm of discourse to
include bisexuals and transgender persons, I hope that it will continue to be expansively
inclusive of other sex/gender outsiders currently marginalized. Queer is a constantly
transgressive and boundary-blurring movement that questions assumptions about what is
natural or even good about one's sexual identity, gender expression, or relationships.
Queer is not unconcerned with sexual or relational ethics, however, despite this being a
Borrowing a concept from liberation theology, in which God expresses a persistent preferential
option for the poor
74 For exa;
those whose sexual expressions may be considered taboo for other reasons.
74 For example: the intersexed, those whose relationships are neither monogamous nor binary, or
criticism leveled by some who are quite comfortable functioning within the boundaries
protected by such unquestioned assumptions. It is precisely because queer is concerned
with justice that ethics are of central importance; however, queer is willing to push the
inquiry into what constitutes ethical in any given relationship or situation to extremes.
Ideally, the queer project also promises to contribute, in its broader application, to
situations and concerns not altogether related to sex or gender. As queer maintains its
edge, it leads to the questioning of other categories of identity (e.g., race, nationality,
class, religious affiliation) as well as any assumption about what is believed to be
"natural" or "right" for all persons, times, and contexts. It is this aspect of the word
queer, for example, that I believe has the most potential to help the LGBT community
resist collapsing into satisfied self-absorption when the political rights currently being
sought are finally granted. " I believe that queer offers a necessary critique of any
attempt to establish new standards of normativity, which become inclusive of one's own
existence and desires by simply creating different categories of marginalized and
oppressed outsiders. I also believe queer offers a critical warning against simply
replicating or assuming normative structures of dominant culture.
The dictionary entry for the word queer, then, is always in the process of being
written and revised. Its hermeneutic is one of suspicion, interrogation, transgression, and
reversal in the cause of bringing a queerer, more just, world into being. I am convinced
I confess that I am somewhat concerned that many in the LGBT community will be tempted to
cease their work for social and political justice for all of the marginalized once they themselves secure
some of the civil rights currently being pursued (i.e., marriage rights, domestic partnership benefits,
inheritance rights, etc.). As stated previously, I am also very troubled by the ways in which current LGBT
political movements tend to be oblivious or indifferent to issues of race, class, nationality, etc.
the application of this queer hermeneutic to topics of spirituality and theology holds
significant and positive potential to further liberate and inspire not only gay men, lesbians,
bisexuals, transgender or intersex persons, and those with other non-normative
relationships and expressions of erotic desire, but all people of faith. In recent years,
queer commentary on the Jewish and Christian scriptures has yielded a wealth of fresh
and meaningful exegetical insights, allowing the so-called "Word of God" to become a
living and relevant word for sexual/gender minorities. ' I believe this example, notably
one of many possible, is only the beginning. Such application of queer is not merely a
mental activity, but one I argue has specific implications for how we live our lives as
fully embodied people in the world, in general, and as members of spiritual communities
or congregations, in particular. Of course, this is possible only if we are willing to
undertake a constant journey with the Queer Spirit, which is what I sincerely hope I, my
congregation, and the broader movement of MCC will risk doing.
See Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, ed. Robert Goss and Mona West
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000) and Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, ed. Ken Stone (Cleveland:
Pilgrim Press, 2001).
In the same way that the word queer has undergone a vast evolution in meaning
over the past several decades, so too have the theological reflections that emerge from
queer experiences. In this chapter, I hope to outline some of the ways in which this
evolution has taken shape, identify some core queer theological values, and articulate
some potential benefits of queer theology.
The Liberation Roots of Queer Theology
Nearly four decades ago, liberation theology began to emerge as a distinct
discipline out of the experiences of people in Latin America, specifically the experiences
of the poor. With growing confidence, theologians in Latin America were taking
seriously the plight of the poor and assuming the right and responsibility for making their
theology and the work of the church contextually relevant for that particular life
experience. Thus initially, liberation theolqgy began as a critique of the church and of
Christians from the point of view of the poor. It then developed into a critique of broader
society and the ideologies sustaining the status quo, many of which were bolstered by the
church's theology. Finally, it became a more sophisticated interpretation of the Christian
faith flowing directly out of the suffering, struggle, and hope of the poor. ' This was a
revolutionary movement meant to transform society through a fundamental change in
Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology: Essential Facts about the Revolutionary Movement in
Latin America— and Beyond (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 6.
economic, political, and social structures that would facilitate the literal feeding of the
hungry and clothing of the naked, as well as the genuine love of neighbor.
Liberation theology is not unique to Latin America, however. In the introduction
to their popular text book on liberation theologies, Mary Potter Engel and Susan Brooks
All around the world popular movements are rising up out of the culture of silence
and finding their voices. In Latin America, Asia, Africa, North America, Europe,
and the Pacific Rim, the spirit is moving and communities of the oppressed are
forming, crying out against their suffering and the social, political, economic, and
religious structures that give rise to that suffering.
Liberation theologians find much to criticize about the assumption perpetuated largely by
white, male theologians that there even exists a universal theology. On the contrary,
liberation theologians have argued from the beginning that theology is always shaped by
social location, by the differing social, economic, political and cultural contexts in which
one thinks theologically. Social location determines "the peculiar interests, emphases,
viewpoints, analyses, and aims" of a particular theology, which is why it is important to
speak of "liberation theologies" rather than any one liberation theology. Despite the
uniqueness of each liberation theology, however, there are connections between them at
the intersection of the different systems of oppression they seek to address.
Queer theology is firmly rooted in liberation theologies, including specifically
feminist theology and theologies of gay and lesbian liberation. Queer theology is
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel, eds., Lift Every Voice: Constructing
Christian Theologies from the Underside (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 1.
79 Ibid., 4.
80 Ibid., 5.
identical to neither, however, as it is a newer and constantly evolving theological project.
It does share with both of these other liberation theologies certain objectives, which aim
to liberate the church, society, and individuals from systems of oppression based on
limited constructions of gender and sexuality.
It is important to foreground this liberation aspect of queer theology since one of
the greatest critiques of queer theory — one of the primary theoretical influences shaping
queer theology — is that it is hopelessly idealistic and disconnected from the actual lives
of embodied people, as well as the very real struggles they face. During a class lecture
on June 14, 2006, Robert Goss noted that queer theology may actually be the saving
grace of queer theory, as it counters this critique by its commitment to liberation and its
aim of addressing real problems caused by systematic oppression based on issues of
gender and sexuality. Elizabeth Stuart agrees. She argues that "queer theology has the
potential to make a contribution to queer theory and rescue it from nihilism because the
Church is the only community under a divine command and constructed according to a
divine logic to be queer." Queer theology, since it is a theology and not a theory, is
invested in the Biblical and Christian tradition of transformation — from individual lives
that are transformed, to the church (including both local congregations and the church
universal), to the entire world.
Elizabeth Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference (Hampshire,
England: Ashgate, 2003), 103.
82 Ibid., 4.
The Evolution of Queer Theology
Queer theology continues to evolve from its roots in feminist theology and
theologies of gay and lesbian liberation. An overview of the major stages in this
evolution to date, as well as some speculation about areas of future direction, should
provide a helpful context for understanding queer theology.
Defense Against the Dark Arts
The "big bang" that birthed what is becoming a distinctly queer theology (and, by
no coincidence, MCC) was the collision between elements of the church and society,
which were influenced by certain religious teachings against same-gender sexual desire
and relationships, on the one hand, and individuals identifying themselves as gay men or
lesbians (and eventually bisexual and transgender persons) who finally said, "enough is
enough!" on the other. These individuals began to claim their voice to describe the
oppression and discrimination they were experiencing and to demand changes,
culminating in receipt of respect, equality, and full inclusion in the church and society. In
many ways, we are still living amidst the rubble of this cosmic collision, as churches and
governments continue to react in counter-response by enacting legislation (ecclesial and
secular) aimed at reinforcing the systems that support this oppression and discrimination.
In the same way that the fictional students at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and
Wizardry must begin with classes called "Defense Against the Dark Arts" in order to
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (New York: A. A. Levine Books, 1998).
This phrase, coined by Rowling in her series of Harry Potter books, is one I find apt in describing a
particular era and hermeneutic in queer theological discourse, especially Biblical criticism and
learn techniques to block spells, charms, hexes, and jinxes aimed at them before they can
learn how to create their own magic, so LGBT Christians had to begin their quest for
liberation by learning techniques for defending themselves against the attacks of
homophobic religion. The primary context for this struggle was (and in many instances
still is) the Bible. In particular, early gay and lesbian liberationists had to learn to deal
defensively with six "clobber passages" or "texts of terror" consistently leveled at them
as proof that same- gender sexual desire and activity is sinful and that individuals who
feel same-sex attraction or participate in sexual relationships with person(s) of their own
biological sex must repent. These passages include the story of Sodom (Genesis 19:4-
11), references in the holiness code of ancient Israel (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), and three
references from the Greek New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, and
Romans l:26-27). 85
A majority of the material published about homosexuality and Christianity from
the late 1960's through the early 1990's was focused on this defense against "textual
harassment."' These theologians and biblical scholars used a variety of historical critical
methods to uncover the social context and concerns that shaped these texts. They also
spent a great deal of time studying the original languages for words that have since been
This term, borrowed from feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, is one Robert Goss uses to
reference these texts.
A discussion of these texts is beyond the scope of this paper.
Mary Ann Tolbert, "Foreword," in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, ed.
Robert E. Goss and Mona West (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000). The term "textual harassment" is used by
Tolbert to explain this use of scripture to harass and harm queer people.
translated, often uncritically, as synonyms for the modern term homosexual. ' Notably,
many of these arguments included or considered foundational essentialist understandings
of sexual identity. Stuart summarizes this understanding well when she writes,
Broadly speaking, essentialists argue that a person's sexual orientation is an
objective and transcultural fact. Though essentialists may disagree as to the
origin of sexual orientation (some would attribute it to genetic make-up, others to
a person's first pleasurable encounter or to interaction with their parents), they
would agree that homosexuality is a transcultural and transhistorical
This essentialist conception allowed gay and lesbian liberationists to use the strategies of
others whose liberation hermeneutic is based on an ethnic-minority model of identity. If
there exists an essential gay or lesbian identity, which is not chosen but simply is, then a
number of arguments can be made against any sort of discrimination (e.g. exclusion from
the church) based on such an unchangeable or natural characteristic. Theologians like
John McNeil illustrate how the primary approach of this method is thoroughly
Transitioning from Defense to Offense: Reading with LGBT Eyes
Several lesbian and gay theologians were able to move beyond defense against the
dark arts and turn their attention to texts and topics that had not been chosen for them by
Examples of these books include: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is
the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978),
John McNeil, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City: Sheed, Andrews, and McNeel, 1976), and
Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality (San Francisco: Alamo Square
88 Stuart, 8.
89 Ibid., 24.
their opponents. A strategy of reading the Bible and exploring theological themes
through the lens of lesbian and gay experience began to emerge in the work of such
theologians as Nancy L. Wilson and Chris Glaser. 91 Wilson, a pastor and elder in the
MCC, published Our Tribe: Queer Folk, God, Jesus, and the Bible, perhaps the most
assertive and edgy work in this emerging category, in 1995. In this book, she looks for
characters in the Bible who may be considered the precursors or ancestors of modern
"queer folk." She analyzes the similarities between such scriptural relationships as
Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, the Bethany Family (i.e., Mary, Martha, and
Lazarus), and many eunuchs, on the one hand, and the relationships of contemporary
gays and lesbians, on the other. The primary strategy employed in this analysis was
described in a recent lecture by Mona West as an "offensive 'outing'" strategy. 94 Glaser
uses the experience of "coming out" as a gay or lesbian person as a lens through which to
examine the many ways in which people are called by God to "come out" as a sacred act
of liberation. He likewise looks for occasions in the Bible when characters have to
"come out" in specific ways in order to liberate themselves from captivity or oppression.
I have intentionally not included bisexual and transgender at this particular time, since the
authors to which I'm referring did not yet include any substantial exploration of bisexuality or
transgenderism, even if they may have occasionally included the terms.
91 Chris Glaser, Coming Out as Sacrament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998) and
Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,
Wilson's use of the term queer is generally a coalition term drawing together gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgender persons. Her use of the term was not, at the time of publication, influenced by
"Queer Explorations for Pastoral, Theological, and Ethical Issues," Episcopal Divinity School,
June 13, 2006.
Wilson and Glaser, as well as many other theologians who use this type of
reading strategy and construction of theology, also rely to a great extent on an essentialist
understanding of sexual identity. 5 As Elizabeth Stuart writes, "Foundational to their
theology is the stable gay/lesbian self whose experience is strong enough to function as a
hermeneutical lens through which to interpret scripture and to extend backwards through
history in a tribal genealogy." 6 As we will see, those who reject this essentialist
understanding find this to be a considerable flaw in this theological strategy.
Another critique of this approach can be made on the basis of its investment in
existing systems of privilege based on identity-based relationship status. For example,
this approach very rarely offers any sustained criticism of such institutions as
heterosexual marriage; rather it simply desires to gain access to the privileges provided
by these systems for gay and lesbian couples. In many instances, this can come off as an
apologetic clamoring for the rights to bankrupt institutions, which seems to be rooted in a
systemic case of low self-esteem. I wholeheartedly agree with Stuart when she argues,
"the gay self is destined to constantly play theological catch-up with the heterosexual self
as long as those very categories of sexual identity go unexamined."
5 This was true at least at the time of the publications referenced. Notably, both Wilson and
Glaser, as well as others, have likely been influenced by later developments in queer religious thought.
96 Stuart, 27.
97 Ibid., 28.
Queer Theological Imagination
In the past decade, certain theologians have begun to more explicitly utilize the
theoretical framework of queer theory in their academic work. The primary shift this
requires is a fundamentally different understanding of identity. The "'essence' of queer
theory" is that
There is no essential sexuality or gender. 'Queer' then is not actually another
identity alongside lesbian and gay (although it is sometimes rather confusingly
used to convey a radical coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
persons) but a radical destabilizing of identities and resistance to the naturalizing
of any identity.
The first work that began to move in this direction was Robert Goss's Jesus Acted
Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. In this work, Goss does not go so far as to
incorporate an understanding of the word queer that takes queer theory into account;
however, he does employ the word queer as an active coalitional political strategy for
destabilizing dominant discourses about sexual identity by exposing and parodying the
limitations of any such stable categories. Like queer theorists, he relies heavily on the
work of Michel Foucault to establish that "a gay/lesbian identity was not given, it was
made" and that "if lesbian and gay people were conscious of the constructed nature of
their identity then they could choose to reconstruct their identities in ways that escaped
the worst aspects of heterosexuality," a project Goss identifies as a primary work of gay
and lesbian theologians. Though primarily a work of deconstruction, Jesus Acted Up
98 Ibid., 10.
does suggest a queer reconstruction of the basileia of Jesus rooted in "solidarity,
compassion, loving service, transgressive action, and inclusive table fellowship with
others who are oppressed." 1 l These values serve as the roots of a queer liberation
theology that Goss develops more fully in his later work.
Following Goss's earlier work, queer theology began to emerge as a category of
theological work distinctly different than gay and lesbian liberation theologies by
rejecting the validity of any stable categories of sexuality or gender. As Stuart notes,
"queer theology is not a 'natural' development of gay and lesbian theology but rather an
unnatural development which emerges from the fissures within gay and lesbian theology
to which the repetitions within it draw attention." Queer theology constantly
challenges heteronormativity, a term used by Goss and others "to describe the
dominant sex/gender system that privileges heterosexual males while it subordinates
women and disprivileges gender/sexual transgressors." 104 In his most recent work, Goss
further argues that "this heteronormative understanding creates a gender/sexual
100 The Greek word typically translated "kingdom" or "realm."
101 Ibid., 83.
102 Ibid., 89.
Heteronormativity refers to the lived expression of sexuality and gender that is considered
normative by majority/centrist society. In the context of the United States and other "Western" cultures,
this generally means that gender is determined by biological sex and that the gender of the object of one's
sexual and affectional desire is necessarily opposite to one's own gender. This paradigm is normalized in
the institution of heterosexual marriage.
Goss, Robert E., Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002),
fundamentalism that pathologizes gender and sexual differences and fails to accept the
fluidity of gender and sexual identity." 105
Taking its cue from queer theory, queer theology also resists the establishment of
any sort of gay and lesbian hegemony. Goss claims this objective in his own work. He
"Queer" turns upside down, inside out, and defies heteronormative and
homonormative theologies. I use "queer" theologically, not only as an identity
category but also as a tool of theological deconstruction, for "queer" as a verb
means "to spoil or to interfere." Heteronormative theologies exclude me except in
their hermeneutics of abomination while gay/lesbian normative theologies
exclude those who do not neatly fit into the categories. 106
In order to expose the limitations of any normalizing forces, be they hetero- or homo-
normative, theologians like Goss embrace the "hermeneutical role of normative
transgression in emerging queer theologies." Such transgression subverts and blurs
traditional boundaries and existing paradigms with "liberative action driven by the
imagination of alternative possibilities and hopes." This evolving queer perspective
aims at including everyone and allowing differences to emerge and co-exist without
being reconciled into some metanormative model. The ultimate aim of this practice of
"queering" is to "imaginatively reconstruct theology, spirituality, and church practices in
new, inclusive configurations." 109
106 Ibid., 228-9. (Italics for emphasis.)
107 Ibid., 229.
108 Ibid., 230.
109 Ibid., 250.
Queer theology aims to create a world that resists fixity of gender or sexual
identity. Likewise, it calls into question any rigidly defined norms for performing gender
or expressing sexuality. At the radically inclusive queer table, there is room not only for
those who identify as lesbian, gay, heterosexual, bisexual, or transgender, but also those
who consider themselves intentional genderfuckers or who flow among and between
these unstable categories of identity. Additionally, there is room for those whose
paradigms of sexual relationships subvert dominant models, including leather folk,
BDSMers, 111 and those involved in various configurations of polyamorous relationship.
This degree of inclusion is offensive to many who are invested in gaining political
privilege or ecclesial "acceptance" based on only a slight "tweaking" of dominant models
of gender/sexual normativity, since it sabotages their normalizing agenda.
Bisexual Argentinean scholar Marcella Althaus-Reid may be the theologian most
offensive in this regard. She insists that queer theology must be passionately and
unapologetically "indecent" if it is to appropriately jar us from our unchecked
assumptions and our participation in interlocking systems of oppression and injustice.
For her, sexuality is the proper access point to examine the Christian theology, since the
i.e., those who make the self-conscious attempt to "fuck with," subvert, or queer (used as a verb)
normative or traditional understandings of gender identity, gender roles, and gender presentation through
the use of parody, exaggeration, and other intentional ways of creating gender dissonance or ambiguity.
111 The acronym BDSM includes the major sub-groupings Bondage and Discipline (B&D),
Dominance and Submission (D&S), and Sadism and Masochism or Sadomasochism (S&M). It refers to a
number of different sexual practices including domination, submission, bondage, role play, power sex, and
other forms of "kinky" sex. BDSMers generally agree on a baseline sexual ethic of "safe, sane, and
Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and
Politics (London: Routledge, 2000).
entire development of Christian theology has been so driven by "a sexual project
concerned with the praxis of specific heterosexual understandings elevated to a sacred
level." Thus by "disrupting the sexual ideology of Christianity, a whole political
project which works against people's lives is also disrupted." Althaus-Reid's work is
perhaps the most sophisticated at exploring the intersections of different aspects of social
location and how they ought to work together in the cause of liberation, a topic to which
we will now turn.
Queer Potentialities: Transgressions of Self-interest
One of the most promising potentialities of queer theology, I believe, lies in its
ability to critically understand the points of conversion and overlap between different
systems of oppression and to offer creative transgressive actions that take all of these
various aspects of social location into account for the larger cause of divine/human
liberation for all, especially the most vulnerable and invisible. As Goss argues,
Queer theologies proceed from critical analysis of the social context that forms
our sexual and gender experiences and the web of interlocking oppressions and
from our innovative and transgressive practices. Queer theology is an organic or
community-based project that includes our diverse sexual contextualities, our
particular social experiences of homo/bi/transphobic oppression and their
connection to other forms of oppression, and our self-affirmations of
sexual/gendered differences, and it will impact the future development of
liberation theologies. 1 15
113 Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (London: Routledge, 2003), 9.
Goss, Queering Christ, 253. (Italics for emphasis.)
Whereas one of the criticisms of gay and lesbian liberation theologies was their obvious
motivation in and occasional limitation to matters of self-interest, no such criticism can
be leveled at queer theologies that take seriously the queer call to transgress the many
traditional boundaries and binarisms (i.e., false dichotomies) that undergird all oppressive
ideologies. Queer theologies rooted in erotic justice must respond, for example, not only
to oppressions based on gender/sexuality, but also in compassionate solidarity with those
struggling to overturn systems of racial and economic injustice.
The single-focused goal of self-interested liberation that has occasionally been
characteristic of gay and lesbian theologies, as well as feminist theologies, black
theologies, and other liberation efforts, cannot be the end result of a genuine queer
theology. Queer theologies must seriously acknowledge and find creative solutions to the
problem that occurs when various social justice movements become compartmentalized
or view their work in terms of competition for limited resources. Historically, certain
progresses to confront oppressions have been made, both intentionally and
unintentionally, by perpetuating or failing to confront other oppressions against different
groups. For example, racism was confronted and certain civil rights were gained by
African Americans; at the same time, the rights of sexual minorities and women within
the African American community were not deemed equally worthy of consideration.
Likewise, heterosexism was confronted by gay, white men who often failed to understand
the ways in which they perpetuated sexism and racism. And, heterosexism and sexism
were confronted by white, lesbian women who often failed to understand the unique ways
in which they themselves disadvantaged women of color and poor women by not
confronting the injustices of racism and classism.
I am impressed with the way in which Maria Lugones articulates the problem, as
well as the challenge and opportunity presented if we can begin to make the connections
between the intersection of oppressions. She writes:
Intersectionality reveals what is not seen when categories such as gender and race
are conceptualized as separate from each other. The move to intersect categories
has been motivated by the difficulty in making visible those who are dominated
and victimized in terms of both categories. Though everyone in capitalist
Eurocentered modernity is both raced and gendered, not everyone is dominated or
victimized in terms of their race and gender. Kimberle Crenshaw and other
women of color feminists have argued that the categories have been understood as
homogenous and as picking out the dominant in the group as the norm; thus
women picks out white bourgeois women, men picks out white bourgeois men,
black picks out black heterosexual men, and so on. It becomes logically clear
then that the logic of categorial separation distorts what exists at the intersection,
such as violence against women of color. Given the construction of the
categories, the intersection misconstrues women of color. So, once
intersectionality shows us what is missing, we have ahead of us the task of
reconceptualizing the logic of the intersection so as to avoid separability. It is
only when we perceive gender and race as intermeshed or fused that we even see
women of color. 1
We might also say that it is only when we perceive sexuality and race as intermeshed that
we can see LGBT people of color, or that only when we perceive class and sexuality as
intermeshed that we can see poor queer people, and so on.
With its attention on the edges of marginality and the disruptions in stable identity
categories, queer theology has the potential to help us understand and meet this challenge.
Queer theologies exist on the margin between what is decent/acceptable and what is
indecent/scandalous. They seek to expose the reality that very often what is considered
decent/acceptable according to the status quo and existing systems of power and privilege
116 Maria Lugones, "Heterosexualism and the Colonial /Modern Gender System," Hypatia 22
is actually that which might rightly be viewed as indecent/scandalous through the eyes of
God and the lens of divine justice. Because it is a theology and not only an academic
theory, queer theology is invested in the redemption and transformation of these realities
for the larger cause (as mentioned previously) of divine/human liberation for all,
especially the most vulnerable or invisible.
Core Queer Theological Values
As queer theology is emerging, several core values seem to be guiding its
evolution. In the paragraphs that follow, I will offer some speculation about some of
these core values as well as the significance they may suggest for future queer theological
thought. This list is merely illustrative and in no way exhaustive.
Goodness of Bodies/Sexual Bodies
As Althaus-Reid succinctly says, "Queer theology is a materialist theology that
takes bodies seriously." While on the surface this may seem a simple thing, it
represents a significant shift away from the body-denying ethos of much of Christian
tradition. Not only has Christianity in the main tended to denigrate and debase human
bodies in general, giving primary attention to the presumed separate — and superior —
spirit or soul, but it has added insult to injury by hating specific bodies even more than
others: i.e., female bodies, bodies of color, impoverished bodies, bodies with disabilities,
and — worst of all — openly sexual bodies. Queer bodies take on this abuse to an even
117 Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 19.
greater extent as they bend/blur/transgress the link between biological sex and gender or
as they claim a bodily state of permanent ambiguity. A reclaiming of the sacredness of
human bodies, in general, and of queer sexual bodies, in particular, is a central objective
of queer theologies.
Because queer theology takes bodies seriously, it tends to be biographical in
nature. "At the bottom line of Queer theologies, there are biographies of sexual migrants,
testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure, and suffering." This
foundation in personal embodied experience is something queer theologies share in
common with many other liberation theologies, which likewise seek to hold themselves
accountable to the lived experiences of people in particular social locations. Queer
theology reclaims this lived experience of embodiment as a primary resource for our
knowledge of God and one another. As Beverly Harrison writes, "All our relations to
others — to God, to neighbor, to cosmos — [are] mediated through our bodies, which are
the locus of our perception and attentiveness in people." The body is thus reclaimed as
the location of revelation. And since Christian theology purports to take seriously the
incarnation (i.e., God's embodiment in the human Jesus) as a revelatory sacred event, this
aspect of queer theology seems particularly relevant for redeeming Christian spirituality
from its body-negative history.
Because queer theology is also a sexual theology, it pays particular attention to
the erotic potential present when boundaries between bodies are pleasurably and
118 Ibid., 8.
Beverly Wildung Harrison, "Human Sexuality and Mutuality," in Christian Feminism: Visions
of a New Humanity, ed. Judith L. Weidman (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 147-8.
positively transgressed. As Althaus-Reid writes, "A Queer theological project is not only
a theology from and of the body: it is a theology of the traveling body which crosses
borders between unnameable countries, and is given away by transversal kisses and re-
configurations of desire." In understanding the erotic as a resource of divine
discovery, queer theologians actually tap back into the ecstatic experiences of many early
Christian mystics whose expression of union with God or Christ was laden with the
language of eroticism and the sacred pleasure present in the transgression of bodily
boundaries, including divine/human boundaries. Queer theologians are unembarrassed
by these frankly sexual descriptions because they reinforce the belief that erotic sexual
experiences can be avenues by which we come to discover more about ourselves, God,
and one another in ways that transform us into more just and more loving people. This
assertion is queer in that it spoils the agenda of dominant patriarchal theologies. In the
words of Marvin Ellison,
Patriarchal Christianity has it wrong: The erotic is not a hostile, alien force
lurking from within to bring us to ruin, but is rather an internal moral guidance
system, grounded in our body's responsiveness to respectful, loving touch. ...
Contrary to patriarchal voices, ... erotic desires are not inherently selfish or
antithetical to moral value. Progressive seekers of justice-love can well imagine
living by an ethical eroticism that enjoys life's pleasures and at the same time
prods us to pursue a more ethical world. The erotic can fuel our passion for
justice. It invites us to take ourselves seriously as sexual persons, playfully as
erotic equals, and persistently as those who refuse to accept oppression as the way
things must be.
120 Ibid., 50.
Marvin M. Ellison, Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality (Louisville, Kentucky:
Westminster John Knox, 1996), 81. (Italics in original.)
One of the strongest liberation roots of queer theology is found in this relentless
insistence on the goodness of the human body, including queer bodies, and on the moral
value of erotic sexual experiences based in justice-love.
Fluidity vs. Fixity
Perhaps the greatest challenge of and for queer theology is making peace with the
fluidity that is its constant calling. For better or worse, we live in a world in which the
disorienting feeling of chaos is occasionally and desirably balanced by orienting
moments when we believe we have gotten a handle on something. Humans have
typically treated issues of the body and sexuality in just this way and seem very reluctant
to change. We are socialized to believe that reasonable assumptions can be made on the
basis of supposedly stable factors such as biological sex, gender expression, and erotic
desire. Generally speaking, when a baby is born, we observe the genitals and make an
automatic pronouncement that "It's a boy" or "It's a girl." When young "boys" and
"girls" head off to their first socializing encounters at school, we ask them respectively,
"Do you have a girlfriend" or "Do you have a boyfriend?" These examples illustrate the
ways in which the entire structure of heteronormativity is held up by assumptions about
the fixity of stable categories of sex-gender-desire. One of the fun things queer theology
inherits from queer theory is its ability to mess things up and topple that structure. Queer
Term used by Robert Goss in EDS course lecture on June 14, 2006.
Here 1 speak of the dominant culture in the United States and other similar contexts. There
may indeed exist other cultural contexts in which this socialization is not so obvious or ingrained, or in
which the fluidity of these categories may even be openly treated.
insists that no such assumptions can be made. Furthermore, queer insists that when these
assumptions are made, it is a sacred moral value to disrupt (i.e., queer) them.
The diverse experiences of transgender people confirm that biological sex is not
ultimately or solely determinative in deciding gender. In fact, certain indicators of
biological sex can be physically changed if someone desires to make those bodily
transformations as part of their own journey toward authenticity and wholeness. Other
people may choose to live in a perpetual state of gender ambiguity, to move freely among
and between different gender expressions, or to intentionally parody the limitations of
any gender binarisms by genderfucking. Queer theology insists that we listen to and
honor the lived experiences of gender-variant people. As Justin Tanis writes, "While
[academic gender] theories may be interesting, what is urgently needed is something that
is relevant and useable in our lives and the only way to create such relevant material is to
do so in the context of real, lived lives that speak about our own experiences." 124 When
we listen to and honor the diverse experiences of trans people, we can have no doubt that
gender is indeed bigger than biological sex. Further, we can come to understand the
value of promoting and protecting an individual's sacred right to self-determination in
The diverse experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people likewise demonstrate
the erroneous assumption of a stable link between gender and sexual desire. One's
identification as a "man" or a "woman" does not automatically infer any particular
gender of the object(s) of one's sexual or affectional desires. Growing out of its roots in
Justin Tanis, Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith (Cleveland:
Pilgrim Press, 2003), 10.
gay and lesbian liberation theologies, queer theology insists on the sacred value of gay
and lesbian relationships. Queer theology pushes the envelope even further, however,
when it calls into question some of the other assumptions of fixity and stability rolled into
the dominant heteronormative (and, to a lesser extent, homonormative) model. For
example: Must all holy and faithful relationships be monogamous? Must they be
restricted to only two people? Is the only sacred commitment one that lasts a lifetime? If
one "comes out" as a lesbian or a gay man, is that necessarily once and for all, or might
one later explore or claim another "identity" category that is more fluid?
It may be helpful to reiterate that this idea of fluidity versus fixity is both a
challenge of and for queer theology. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the case that
those who identify as gay or lesbian are easily able to take the step beyond their own
experience and embrace the experience of gender-queers or people whose relationships
do not mimic the heteronormative model of monogamous marriage. Many gay and
lesbian people tend to wish and work for liberation only in as much as they can move
themselves from the unacceptable margins back to the acceptable center. The central
objective of queer theology that aims to subvert fixity is bound to unsettle those gays and
lesbians who manage to regain and maintain their place in the pyramid of privilege by
investing in certain "stable" aspects of the heteronormative status quo. It can be as
difficult for those whose life experiences have led them to live in grey area and question
the status quo to live in a constant state of flux as it can for those new to the experience.
It should behoove us to remain mindful of the spiritual challenge this value of fluidity
presents to all people, even those who may have theoretically embraced it.
So far, this intentional subversion of fixity has been applied most readily in terms
of gender or sexual desire. As alluded to earlier, I believe that this hermeneutic of
subverting fixity should be applied more broadly and may come to expose and overturn
other identities or systems we have tended to assume are fixed or stable. This could
apply to matters of race, class, ability, ethnicity, and even religious affiliation. For
example, one of the trends in recent Christian theologizing, as demonstrated by such
authors as Kathy Rudy and Rowan Williams, has been to prioritize baptismal Christian
identity as one that trumps and sets aside all other identities. While there is obvious
theological insight in this that is worthy of further exploration, I am not as quick to
disregard the challenge queer theorists like Alison Webster might offer "that surely
Christian identity is as unstable or slippery as a sexual identity." Indeed, Christian
identity is often as individually determined as any sexual or gender identity. I believe the
queer project insists that we apply our core value of fluidity to some of the theological
categories and concepts we have yet to question. My hope is that it will lead us, at the
very least, into an increased appreciation of interreligious dialogue and inclusion.
Inclusivity and Hospitality
A somewhat legitimate heir of gay and lesbian liberation, queer theology values a
radical inclusivity in Christian community that welcomes the outcast, the marginalized,
the untouchable, and all of those who have been told by exclusivist religious authorities
125 As noted by Stuart, 106
that they are unworthy, unloved, or invisible. Queer theologians begin with the core
assumption that every individual is created in the image of God (imago dei) and,
therefore, is of inherent sacred worth. Some people fear that this radical welcome will do
away with any standards of ethical conduct in community, but this fear is unfounded. By
valuing inclusivity, queer theologians affirm the dignity of all people and the ideal of
building a community of mutual love and support where all people can participate as their
most authentic selves. Far from rejecting moral standards, the types of ethical behaviors
such a community must nurture in order to be radically inclusive are substantial.
In her recent book Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical
Inclusion, Yvette Flunder addresses this topic by affirming the "explicit call for the
inclusion of the marginalized" and articulating clearly that this is a challenging notion of
what it means to be Christian community. A veteran pastor of a vibrant community
currently composed primarily of African Americans, including a number of same gender
loving (SGL) persons, transgender persons, people living with HIV/AIDS, and others on
the edges of society, Flunder believes hospitality and inclusivity are linked in their
essential importance in making this type of community possible. She argues that they
"must be coupled with accountability to and responsibility for the community if it is to be
sustained." Offering a metaphor of village life, which attempts to capture the dual
ideas of inclusivity/hospitality and accountability, she claims
The creation of Christian community among people marginalized by the church
and society requires that the community maintain a presence of cultural
familiarity while actively fighting and overcoming oppressive and exclusive
Flunder, Yvette A., Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005), ix-x.
theology. Sustaining community among people who visibly represent
marginalized groups necessitates (a) the use of village ethics or knowing where
the boundaries are when all things are exposed and (b) the importance of village
table theology or giving everyone a seat at the central meeting place or welcome
Queer theology shares with Flunder a vision of this type of community, as difficult as it
may be to nurture and sustain, as a vision of "true community — true church" that
"enables the celebration of diversity and inclusion of all peoples, especially those who
have traditionally been marginalized by religious institutions."
Because queer theology aims to shape a church and society in which all people
are included, queer theologians must remain attentive to the voices rising from the silence
of the margins. Every time the community begins to become reasonably assured that all
are included, it can be relatively certain that it has developed a growing comfort with a
new status quo and that it needs to look again for those who are not present. The queer
theological project is one that makes its nomadic home in the margins, and it must renew
its constituency based on who is being marginalized in a given time and context by
center-based theologies. Once again, this means that it is attentive and responsive to the
intersections of oppressions and that it must raise its voice in solidarity with the excluded,
beyond a limited self interest. The creation of a truly inclusive community is a core
queer theological value — theoretically, sacramentally, and actually.
128 Ibid., x.
129 Ibid., xiv.
Contribution of Queer Theology
Queer theology has a tremendous gift to offer individuals, the church, our
communities, and our world. As a marginal theology attentive to the permeations that
exist between presumed fixed and solid boundaries, queer theology taps into what
biologist Barry Lopez calls the "evolutionary potential" found at charged border zones. "
In his eloquent article, "Into the Body of Another: Eros, Embodiment and Intimacy with
the Natural World," Douglas Burton-Christie describes this location as "the meeting point
of two worlds, in the fluid space where they mingle and dance together." He goes on
To understand such a world means learning to accept its vital, insistent dynamism
and its organic evolutionary developments as basic features of the landscape. To
inhabit such a world means learning to dwell in a landscape where borders are
fluid and permeable, where life unfolds in unexpected ways in the continuous
movement of species back and forth across borders. It is easy to miss these subtle
movements. Yet to do so is to risk missing the very life of the place. So it is with
other ecotones that we inhabit, those fluid, often-contested spaces between the
human and the "more than human" worlds, between matter and spirit, body and
soul, heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. It is not easy to move across the
borders between these worlds, or to inhabit the charged, liminal space that joins
them together. The mental habit of dualism is, for many of us, so ingrained that it
is difficult even to imagine doing so. Yet we must, for the sake of the world as
well as for the sake of our own souls, try. Unless we are able to imagine these
different worlds in relationship to one another, drawn together in a subtle,
rhythmic dance, we will be condemned to live a thin, impoverished existence,
bereft of intimacy, empty of feeling and spirit. And we will continue to visit our
own sense of alienation upon the living world.
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (New York:
Bantam, 1987), 109-1 10, as quoted in Douglas Burton-Christie. "Into the Body of Another: Eros,
Embodiment and Intimacy with the Natural World," Anglican Theological Review 81 (1999): 13-37.
131 Burton-Christie, 13.
132 Ibid., 13-14.
Queer theology can help us learn to live in such a world, able not only to survive but to
thrive in the liminal areas that constitute so much of our life together. In fact, queer
theology gives us a constantly expanding vocabulary to discuss the ways in which the
boundaries we thought were so fixed and the identities we thought were so stable were, in
fact, neither. It allows us to reimagine with God a world in which borders are permeable
and where, in the words of Burton-Christie, "life emerges nowhere else so fully and
deeply as it does in the exchange across these borders."
While it grows out of a particular concern to overcome rigid assumptions about
gender and sexuality, as well as the systems of discrimination and oppression built upon
those assumptions, queer theology offers strategies for deconstructing other rigid systems
that keep certain people excluded and underprivileged on the basis of seemingly innate or
fixed characteristics. It also offers constructive tools for reimagining an inclusive world
that is vibrant and alive with delightful variations and sacred surprises. Queer theology
pushes us beyond the limitations of our own thinking and invites us to join in
collaborative co-creation with the God whose imagination is not so limited. As a
liberation theology, queer theology remains accountable to the lived experience of real
people with real problems, real hopes, real dreams, real struggles. Its "public" is
expansive and its agenda is dominated by the desire for divine justice-love. As
individuals are empowered to name for themselves their embodied experiences, all of us
are invited to question our unchecked assumptions and to stretch the limits of our
smallness to include the recognition of those experiences, as well as to learn more about
133 Ibid., 17.
our own in the interaction. In this way, queer theology offers us a different way of seeing
the world and ourselves in it, a vibrant and surprising world of endless gradations and
nuances in which the disruption of rigidity is a manifestation of grace.
MAKING THE CONNECTIONS:
DEVELOPING QUEER SPIRITUAL COMMUNITIES
I believe that there must be real connections between theology and praxis if
theology is to mean anything at all. In other words, what a congregation thinks and
values must translate into its embodied lived experience and actions if its thoughts and
values are accurate and actual. In fact, if integrity between theological thought and
practical action does not exist, the validity and stability of that thought might rightly be
called into question. Therefore, congregations need to be intentional about ensuring that
such an integral link exists between their core theological values and how those values
are lived out in the fullness of their congregational lives.
In this chapter, I hope to make the case for being intentional about developing an
integrity of praxis flowing out of queer theological values. This will include some
discussion of the troublesome gaps between theology and praxis I have observed in
certain MCC churches. Additionally, because a key feature of the pastoral leader is to
help the congregation develop such an integral and grounded praxis, I hope to outline
some strategies that pastors of queer churches may use to be intentional about developing
queer spiritual communities.
The author of the book of James said very succinctly, "Faith without works is
dead." ' While this statement was made in the midst of a complex discussion about the
nature of salvation, which is a topic beyond the scope of this thesis, it does describe well
James 2:17; 2:26; in the larger pericope 2:14-26.
what has long been seen as a problem if the content of one's faith beliefs are inconsistent
with one's actions. The same sentiment is summed up in the adage, "You must practice
what you preach," or similarly, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." It is also the
problem identified in the Bible and contemporary discussions of religion when charges of
hypocrisy are made against those whose lived reality does not match their professed
belief. The popular book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about
Christianity ... and Why It Matters contains just such an indictment of Christianity. "
The book reports the results of a Barna Group survey of youth between the ages of 16
and 29 in the United States, a majority of which see Christians as a group, first and
foremost, as judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. My gut instinct is that these
percentages would be even higher for those who have been marginalized by the church
because they are in some way queer. Consequently, it becomes all the more important
for queer churches to be intentional about aligning their practice with their beliefs,
values, and convictions.
The general conviction that faith practices should be in alignment with and flow
directly out of one's core theological values is the foundation of the collaborative work
Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life edited by Dorothy Bass and
Miroslav Volf. " " In her introduction to this volume, Bass argues that "Our thinking
about God and our way of living should go hand in hand." Craig Dykstra and Dorothy
David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about
Christianity ... and Why it Matters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007).
Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Dorothy C. Bass and Miroslav
Volf (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 2002).
137 Dorothy C. Bass, "Introduction," in Practicing Theology, 2.
Bass say this more strongly, "Beliefs and practices can and should be understood in
relation to one another" and should "reject the separation of thought and action, seeing in
practice a form of cooperative and meaningful human endeavor in which the two are
inextricably entwined." By focusing on Christian practices, contributing authors are
able to "demand attentiveness to specific people doing specific things together within a
specific frame of shared meaning." 1 In other words, practices are the location where the
rubber meets the road; they are the direct actions that bring theological belief to lived
expression in the Christian community. It is also important to note that not only does
theological belief shape practice, but the practices also have an influencing role in
shaping theological belief. Our practices are formative in the sense that they shape our
way of being and thinking in the world. Likewise, when we realize that the practices we
find most meaningful are out of sync with our beliefs, an opening is made for us to revise
and modify our beliefs.
This mutually dynamic relationship between theology and praxis is one of the
primary concerns to which the leaders of theological communities must remain attentive.
As Bass writes, "Those who lead theological communities need to find ways of . . .
preventing theological reflection from becoming overly abstract or distant from the
messy realm where human beings dwell and where Christian life and ministry take
place." This "messy realm" of "real life" is something to which leaders of
Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, "A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices," in
Practicing Theology, 2 1 .
139 Bass, "Introduction," in Practicing Theology, 3.
140 Ibid., 5.
communities must continually draw attention. Israel Galindo also addresses this aspect
of faith in his recent work as he writes to congregational leaders about helping their
communities develop an "effective faith."
A qualitative understanding of faith accepts that, as many scholars and theologians
claim, faith is a normative human dimension — everyone has faith. Effective faith
is the kind of faith that makes a difference — has an effect — on the way we live
our lives. That is, effectual faith is a particular kind of faith, the kind of faith that
has an overt effect on our lives: the way we behave, the way we think, the way we
make decisions, the values we hold, and the response we make to life.
If faith communities are not attentive to ensuring that faith is effective and that there is an
integral relationship between thinking and doing, between theological thought and praxis,
then they run the risk of becoming irrelevant to individual members of the community,
the community at large, and the larger world.
My hope is to take this general question about integrating theology and praxis and
apply it specifically to the integration of queer theology and congregational praxis in
MCC. The previous chapter outlines some examples of core theological values, which in
no way a constitute a complete list, but which will serve as a good beginning to this
conversation. As congregations that provide alternatives to the hegemony of
heteronormativity that permeates both church and culture, MCC's work of integrating
theological belief and praxis is necessarily a continuously countercultural endeavor.
For this reason, it requires a certain amount of careful vigilance.
Israel Galindo, The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics (Herndon,
Virginia: Alban, 2004), 96
Actually, we n
integrating queer theological values simply ups the ante considerably
Actually, we might argue that integrating all gospel values are countercultural actions;
The few core values that I have argued are decidedly queer in nature, include (a)
affirming the goodness of human bodies in general and sexual bodies in particular, (b)
privileging fluidity over fixity, and (c) living out a radical form of inclusivity and
hospitality in the Christian community. These values are formed by queer experience
and, in turn, influence the way queer people think theologically. We could appropriately
argue that these values are sacred values that describe the character of God as well as the
shape of a faith that urges humanity to become more God-like.
If a particular community's theology is queer in these and other ways, then these
core queer theological values must find their expression in the community's lived
experience. As mentioned above, these theological beliefs should become effective in
that they have a tangible effect on the way members of the community live their lives.
Further, they should have a tangible effect on the community's corporate life. In other
words, in queer theological communities, the day-to-day practices of the community and
individual members of it should noticeably exhibit the character of these values.
Otherwise, to borrow from the author of James, queer faith without works (actions) is
Fissures in Integration: Indicators of the Problem
In her essay, "Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices," Amy
Plantinga Pauw notes the "temptation [many people have] to turn to exemplary cases
when talking about the relationship between beliefs and practices." This is manifest in
Amy Plantinga Pauw, "Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices," in Practicing
the desire to use examples of extraordinary alignment between belief and practice, when
the actions of particular people or communities unquestioningly demonstrate integrity
and force. However, she rightly argues that it might be just as, if not more, helpful to
look at examples of disconnect between belief and practice.
There is . . . something to be said for looking at efforts by less exemplary believers
to bridge the troublesome gaps that keep reappearing in various ways between their
beliefs and practices. Their struggles reveal the continual slippage and compromise
that occur between these two central aspects of the religious life. . . . The ordinary
struggles of religious people lay bare the ligaments that hold beliefs and practices
together. Their struggles reveal how easily these connections become strained and
broken when admirable belief fails to nurture admirable practice, or when vibrant
practice fails to stimulate vibrant belief. 144
Believing that there is definite wisdom in this exhortation to attend to the gaps, I would
like to explore some examples from my own experience in MCC churches, i.e., churches
that may be considered at least implicitly as queer theological communities. Each
example hopes to illustrate a disconcerting gap between a particular queer theological
value and its lived expression.
Unless otherwise indicated, these examples come from my experience in the
congregation where I serve as pastor. MCC of Northern Virginia (MCC NOVA) is a
suburban congregation with approximately one hundred members, about forty percent
men and sixty percent women in worship attendance, racially mixed but a large majority
white and of European descent, more than sixty percent in some way LGBT-identified,
intergenerational from infant to octogenarian with a median age between forty and sixty,
generally highly educated, and predominantly middle to upper-middle class. 145
144 Ibid., 33-34.
These details are based on my general observations, not on any scientifically collected survey
Affirming the Goodness of Bodies in General and Sexual Bodies in Particular
I have argued that a core value of queer theology is the affirmation of the
goodness of the human body in general, and of sexual bodies, in particular. Metropolitan
Community Churches have embraced this affirmation, which stands in contrast and
tension with the body-denying and erotophobic ethos of much of Christian tradition.
Additionally, MCC claims that one of its primary objectives is to "proudly bear witness
to the holy integration of sexuality and spirituality." I have had several experiences in
individual MCC congregations, however, that have indicated a rather wide gap between
this communal belief and its ability to be expressed in specific lived experiences. One
recent example from my own congregation should prove a sufficient illustration.
Earlier this year, we were hosting a regular social event called "First Fridays" on
the first Friday of every month. At one such event, we showed the movie Rent, the 2005
film version of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical about Bohemians in
the East Village of New York City struggling with life, love, poverty, drugs, sexuality,
AIDS, and their impact on America. 147 There was a scene in which the character Mimi
Marquez was dancing at her place of empl6yment, an erotic dance club called the Cat
Scratch Club. She sang a song called "Take Me Out Tonight" and her performance was
fully embodied and sexually suggestive. At one point in the movie, I left the sanctuary
where we were showing the movie, and I ran into one of my transgender members in the
Statement of Vision from MCC Strategic Plan, 2005, http://www.mccchurch.net/ (accessed
October 30, 2006).
Internet Movie Database Description of Rent (2005), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0294870/
(accessed October 30, 2006).
fellowship hall. She was seething with anger and told me that she was upset to the point
of leaving the church because we were showing the film. She was particularly offended
by the dance scene and indicated she thought it was "especially inappropriate to have
anything suggesting sexuality present in the sanctuary." It was the latter — the
convergence of the holy (epitomized by the church sanctuary) and the embodied/sexual
— that seemed to be the largest problem for her.
The incident was complex and layered with many different issues of history and
personality, as most situations of conflict in churches are. I needn't go into any in-depth
exploration of these complexities. What I would like to lift up from this experience,
however, is the way in which someone who has at least some investment in the values of
queer theology so quickly retreated to the body-denying and erotophobic stance of her
religious roots when it came to actually experiencing some affirmation of the body and
sexuality in a spiritual context. Even though she has publicly affirmed a desire to heal
the division between body and soul and has participated in a number of educational
events affirming sexuality — and specifically queer sexuality — as a gift from God, there
was a noticeable gap between those aspirational theological beliefs and their practical
application. This is illustrative of a fairly persistent gap in queer theological
communities, in my observation, as unchecked expectations and assumptions come to the
surface and bring with them the very attitudes and understandings about the body and
sexuality we aspire to overcome. When "old tapes" get triggered in our minds that repeat
the messages broadcast by mainstream religious authorities of our childhood and the
Though, admittedly, it wasn't an overtly "spiritual" event — it was a social event for adults that
was using our versatile common room that we also use for worship.
dominant culture at large, we come face to face with internalized oppressions rooted in
the complex intersection of homophobia, sexism, racism, able-ism, and other embodied
Privileging Fluidity over Fixity
Metropolitan Community Churches were founded with a primary affirming
theological understanding of gay men and lesbians, which acknowledges the failure of
fixed categories of gender performance and sexual attraction to adequately represent the
reality of our lives. Over the course of our history, we have also become more open to
affirming bisexual and transgender persons, which further illustrates the fluidity of these
categories. In my own congregation, we've done a lot of work on the issue of
transgender inclusion and our understanding and acceptance has been stretched in recent
years as more and more transgender persons have become active and vital members of
our community. We have had community forums and panels with transsexuals,
transvestites, and "gender queers" who do not identify as either male/female or who may
move among and between these categories maintaining an intentional sense of gender
ambiguity. In the rare instances when we have gender-specific programming, we always
include the words, "this group is open to any person identifying as male" or "any person
identifying as female." This is why a recent conflict in my church, illustrative of yet
another troubling gap between expressed belief and embodied action, caught me
somewhat off guard.
My congregation has long been identified as a primarily female congregation.
Women constitute a majority of those attending worship and activities. Additionally,
women have taken on most of the leadership roles. I've been doing intentional work to
encourage, equip, and empower the men in the community to become more involved and
to help us meet the unique needs of men for spirituality and communal relationships. Out
of our intentional discussions around this issue, a core group of men expressed a desire
for a men's Bible discussion group to meet monthly. We talked from the very beginning
about how we could maintain our commitment to be trans-inclusive and still create
gender-specific programming. We had explicit conversations about inviting all who
identified as male, including some of the transmen in our congregation, to fully
participate. I was taken aback when one of the leaders of this group told me of their
decision to deny the request of one of our members who had asked to attend. The
member in question told them s/he identified as male, yet the men in the group did not
experience him as male and considered him, instead, to be a butch lesbian living in a
lesbian relationship. (The group actually got together and voted about the person's
gender and whether they "met the requirements" of the group, which is an entirely
different problem!) My point is that even though the group had a theoretical
understanding of the fluidity of gender, they weren't able to move beyond their own
initial assumptions about a person's gender in order to allow her/him to self-identify. As
much as we have talked about our conviction that ours will be a safe community that
supports an individual's right to self-determination in these matters, including the
creation of space for people to "try on" different gender identities on their journeys
towards authenticity and wholeness, when the rubber met the road in this case, it skidded
rather badly. An incongruence between belief and action once again became visible.
This issue of fluidity vs. fixity may be the greatest challenge for queer theological
communities. Repeatedly, even as we have appreciated the wiggle room to define
ourselves, our gendered bodies, and our relationships in ways that transgress
heteronormative assumptions, we have failed to master an ability to live comfortably with
ambiguity for long. We seem to long for things to be "pinned down" and we retreat to
unchecked assumptions about the stability of gender and of relationship configurations. I
shall return to this later, as this may require the most intentional work on the part of
leaders of queer theological communities.
Radical Inclusivity in Christian Community
Living out a radical inclusivity in Christian community is one of the core values
of queer theology. It is also a central tenet of MCC congregations around the world.
"Inclusion" is the first articulated "core value" of MCC, which is further elaborated to
indicate that "Love is our greatest moral value and resisting exclusion is a primary focus
of our ministry. We want to continue to be conduits of faith where everyone is included
in the family of God, and where all parts of our being are welcomed at God's table."
Most local MCC congregations, including my own, have explicitly articulated this value
in some way in their own definitional documents. We seek to emulate the life and
witness of Jesus, who embraced the outcast and passionately advocated for the inclusion
and honoring of society's most marginalized and vulnerable. However, there exist
MCC's Core Values as outlined in Strategic Plan, http://www.mccchurch.net (accessed October
significant gaps between our articulated belief in inclusion as a core theological value and
our practice of including all people.
Cindi Love, MCC's Executive Director, recently shared with my congregation
one such example from her own experience. Love served for a year as the first Pastor
of MCC of Greater Dallas, a congregation that remained affiliated with MCC after our
largest church, the Cathedral of Hope, voted to disaffiliate. The members who remained
had a lot of work to do initially to define themselves as a congregation distinct from the
Cathedral of Hope megachurch. Inclusivity remained at the core of their self-proclaimed
identity. They claim that "inclusion and hospitality" are "their principle ethics." 151 Love
described a significant gap, however, in their belief about the value of inclusivity and
their ability to embody it in practice. At one point in time, as they were moving from
building to building in search of a permanent meeting place, the church was located in an
area very near to a high concentration of the city's homeless population. Love began
inviting some of these people to participate in worship. Initially, the community accepted
this without commentary. However, once several of the men accepted Cindi' s invitation
to sing in the choir not only for worship but also for some special holiday musical events,
people began to protest. They complained that these homeless, primarily African-
American men, "stunk" and that their presence was disruptive to the pleasant sense of
"community" they had begun to enjoy. In subsequent conversations with members of the
community who threatened to leave the church if these men remained, Love became
This example was shared with leaders of my church at a recent workshop on financial planning
held on September 2, 2006
151 MCC i
October 30, 2006)
MCC of Greater Dallas "About Us", http://www.mccgd.org/content/leadership.asp (accessed
convinced that their objections were based in racist and classist assumptions and attitudes
they were unwilling to acknowledge or critically examine.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence. Several such examples could be
given about a troublesome gap between the belief that radical inclusivity is a sacred
imperative and the practice of actually welcoming all people. Specifically, this becomes
evident at the intersection of other oppressions. Classism and racism may be the most
common. Congregations of primarily middle to upper class, white gays and lesbians who
are largely able to "fit in" to the existing systems of privilege in our society are often
uneasy with racial diversity or easily detectable differences in socioeconomic status or
class. Many MCC congregations also have difficulty when more fringe elements of
queer community are visible, including transgender folks who don't "pass" well, and
those whose sexual relationships are not mere replicas of monogamous heterosexual
unions with same-gender partners. For example, those who participate in BDSM or
leather sexuality, or whose relationships are polyamorous by design, often threaten the
unity of MCC congregations and find themselves less than fully welcomed. Attention
must be given to helping integrate more fully the desire for radical inclusivity and its
actuality in lived experience.
Transforming the Gaps, Working for Integration
In using these illustrations of gaps between theological belief and praxis in MCC,
I do not mean to imply that MCC congregations are necessarily worse than any other
churches are at achieving "effective faith." However, I do want to be honest about the
specific work to which MCC congregations need to be attentive. In order to attend to
some of these gaps and help congregations become more integrated and authentic in their
expression of queer theological values, the leaders of queer spiritual communities must
be intentional about continually helping the congregation view their practices and
corporate life through the lens of these values. "These gaps call for persistent critical
analysis of the relations and misrelations between beliefs and practices." Pastors have
a primary responsibility for making sure this happens. They must help draw attention to
the gaps and invite members of the community to be critically self-reflective at the same
time as they are creatively imaginative about the positive transformation present as such
gaps become smaller. For the gaps are not only indicators of a problem, they are also
indicators of potential. As Terry Veling writes,
What is a gap, except perhaps a space — a blank space, a space like that of the
margin? A blank space represents a lack or an absence, yet it also represents a
hunger or a search. It is as much about what is missing or excluded as it is about
the hope or vision for what could be, for new possibility.
Therefore, the practice of intentionally working for integrity in queer spiritual
communities is a constructive, spiritual practice with the potential to transform
communities and individual members of them in ways that are liberative and life-giving.
Strategic Intentionality for Leaders
MCC pastors have the responsibility and the privilege of helping to develop and
shape queer theological communities. Being intentional about working for integrity
Plantinga Pauw, 41.
Terry A. Veling, Living in the Margins: Intentional Communities and the Art of Interpretation
(Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1996), 18.
between queer theological values and embodied practice is a key strategic function of
such pastoral leadership. In order to be intentional, I believe pastoral leaders must focus
energy and attention on articulating queer theological values, drawing attention to the
ways in which they are - and are not - being practiced, and continually stretching the
limits of what is considered "normative" in order to make room for queer revelations to
emerge from the sacred margins. Taking the core queer theological values that I have
outlined as examples, I will briefly suggest some potential ways in which pastoral leaders
might be intentional in each area.
Bodily Celebration and Sexual Boldness
As much as talk about the "body" is central to Christian theology and
ecclesiology, most of Christian tradition has treated our concrete physical bodies as
something of an embarrassment. Christian theology often discusses the "body" of Christ,
the church as "the body," and "bodies" of theological knowledge. Yet, as Brazilian
theologian Jaci Maraschin has suggested, these bodies "have usually been bodies without
flesh, without bones or brains, bodies without nervous systems or blood," 154 and as
Marcella Althaus-Reid adds, "bodies without menstruation or sweat or without
malnutrition or without sexual relationships." 15 ' One of the tasks of queer theology — a
theology that affirms the goodness of human bodies in general and sexual bodies in
particular — is, as I have argued, to challenge the body-denying and erotophobic ethos of
mainstream Christian tradition. As Justin Tanis writes:
154 Maraschin, as cited in Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 114.
155 Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 114.
The aim of body theology is to examine our bodily experiences as the way in which
we experience God. The only way that we know God is as embodied people.
Through our bodies' capacities for sight, sound, emotion, thought, intuition, and
other senses, we are able to experience the divine. The sacred comes to us through
our bodies and within our bodies. . . . Our bodies are made in the image and likeness
of God and are the only ways in which we experience the divine.
We must begin by bringing our actual physical bodies back into the church and into the
fullness of our spiritual experience. Pastors of queer churches should talk about the
sacredness of bodies and about the variety of our particular bodies, including queer
However, as essential as explicit talk about the body is, it is not enough. Queer
churches should be centers for the celebration of human embodiment. Bodies should be
present in worship, not as the embarrassing husks for our spirits that we must necessarily
bring with us, but as proud instruments of our praise and devotion. Pastors can help their
communities reclaim an embodied spirituality by making room for the body to be
celebrated. Worship, as one of the central corporate experiences, should include sacred
dance, liturgical movement, body prayers, and sacred rituals that include touch. Pastors
of queer churches will likely find this level of bodily celebration and integration in
spiritual life to be welcomed by a majority of parishioners. However, when they push
further to a celebration of the particularities of queer bodies, they may face more
MCC churches should be places where queer bodies can be acknowledged,
explored, and celebrated for their particularity. To note a couple of examples that have
been problematic for some congregations, transgender bodies and bodies with HIV/AIDS
156 Tanis, 164.
should be explicitly brought into the light in queer spiritual communities as images of the
divine. As Tanis writes about the importance of a trans-inclusive body theology, he says:
Transgendered bodies are the source of our pleasure and our pain, a sign of our
incongruity and our internal unity. We may struggle with our bodies, rejoice in our
bodies, weep over the parts present or the parts absent, see our bodies as a prison
and live to view them as a source of our liberation. Trans bodies are often changing
bodies, bodies that hold more than one essence, transitional bodies and
It is essential for queer spiritual communities to be places that celebrate transgender
bodies in their various configurations. Pastors can help make this happen, for example,
by including transgender bodies as examples in their preaching and teaching,
empowering transgender persons to share their body stories in the community, and by
creating meaningful corporate rituals to honor body transitions.
Bodies with HIV/AIDS must also be explicitly acknowledged and honored in
queer spiritual communities. "Although many diseases plague humankind," writes Jim
Mitulski, "HIV is unique in that the disease is religiously stigmatized, and it affects
religiously stigmatized people." While HIV/AIDS is undiscriminating in its affect on
all people, in the disease's history it has tended to be associated with those whose
sexuality is non-heteronormative, or more specifically, with gay men. Because
HIV/AIDS affects the church as the "body of Christ" and the queer church to an even
greater extent, it is imperative that MCC congregations honestly and openly affirm the
goodness of bodies with HIV/AIDS. Pastors can help congregations do this, for example,
157 Ibid., 161.
Jim Mitulski, "Ezekiel Understands AIDS, AIDS Understands Ezekiel, or Reading the Bible
with HIV," in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, ed. Robert E. Goss and Mona West
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000), 153-154.
by addressing HIV/AIDS in their preaching and teaching, by including specific prayers
for a cure for HIV/AIDS, by empowering those infected or affected by HIV/ AIDS to tell
their own bodily stories (including the candid realities of living with HIV and the
embodied challenges of managing side effects from HIV medications), and by joining
with other agencies serving those with HIV/AIDS in collaborative partnerships.
Queer theology is also a sexual body theology, a theology of bodies in love. To
bring sexual bodies back into the life of the church requires a sexual boldness on the part
of pastors. And pastors can face enormous challenges as they claim this responsibility.
For as much as Christianity has been shaped by the body-denying strains in its tradition,
the effects of erotophobia are even more deeply entrenched. Pastor's who dare to talk
openly about sex, especially the realities of the diverse sexual lives queer people lead,
will face push-back if not downright hostility from those who cannot separate sex from
shame. However, queer theology insists that sexuality is a good gift from God and that
our sexual relationships are indeed avenues for discovering and experiencing the divine.
Queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reed insists that, "In queer theology, the grounding
of the theological reflection lies in human relationships for ... it is in scenes of intimacy
and the epistemology provided by those excluded from the political heterosexual project
in theology that unveilings of God may occur." 15 One of the things pastors can do is to
"highlight the 'ordinariness' of love and sexuality" and to create safe places where people
can be honest about their own sexual experiences. It can be especially helpful in queer
159 Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 114.
theological communities to open up a dialogue about sexual ethics that does justice to the
reality of our lives and helps us navigate systems for relating ethically with one another
that are not bogged down in heterosexism and are rooted in justice-love.
Making Peace with Liminality
As I mentioned previously, I believe one of the most significant challenges for the
leaders of queer spiritual communities lies in their calling to nurture community and
spiritual growth amidst the perpetual presence of ambiguity. By and large, people are not
comfortable with ambiguity or uncertainty for long. This is obviously a challenge for
queer spiritual communities since fluidity is a core queer theological value and change a
constant organizational characteristic. Helping the community navigate this tension
requires a commitment on the part of pastors and leaders to resist the full force of the
centralizing, normalizing, and stabilizing tendencies present in congregations. It further
requires them to nurture and utilize the transformational power of liminality.
Building on the work of Arnold van Gennep concerning rites of passage, Victor
Turner understood liminality to refer to an intermediary condition, something that is
neither here nor quite there. For example, in rites of passage there is an initial step in
which a person leaves his/her old state of life, then the liminal stage where s/he exists
"betwixt and between," before a final stage when s/he receives a new status and is
reincorporated. Turner "argues that liminality is not simply a negative period of
privation, but rather a powerful spiritual experience in its own right. It is a sort of seed-
161 Marvin M. Ellison, Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality (Louisville, Kentucky:
Westminster John Knox, 1996), 4.
bed for spiritual, artistic, and cultural creativity." Pastors have a particular role to play
in helping congregations experience the creative potential of liminality. Timothy Carson
The religious leader is strategically positioned, both in terms of specific roles
within faith communities and also by virtue of a particular theological worldview,
to be an extremely important ritual guide to individuals, groups and social and
ecclesial systems upon entrance into liminal states within passages. The pastoral
leader may approach liminal reality with unique fields of meaning which are
frequently more applicable to liminal reality than those of other schools of
This is all the more true of pastors of queer spiritual communities because liminality is
the essence of queer; it is the space between identities if not the disruptor of identities,
and it is a constant characteristic of queer church. This liminal characteristic of queer
communities, if it can be nurtured and people can make peace with living in it for
extended periods of time, is one of its richest sources of spiritual depth, vitality, and
meaning. The liminal stage is
the most power-laden time for transformation . . . one of departure from structure or
homeostasis, wherein expectations may be challenged, unspeakable subjects
discussed and new roles tested. This may include an experimental playfulness and
freedom with roles, thoughts, and behavior which are uncharacteristic of those
found in ongoing structural relationships.
H. Boone Porter Jr., "Liminal Mysteries: Some Writings by Victor Turner," Anglican
Theological Review 57, no. 2 (April 1975): 215.
Timothy L. Carson, "Liminal Reality and Transformational Power: Pastoral Interpretation and
Method," Journal of Pastoral Theology 7 (Summer 1997): 105.
164 Ibid., 109.
Because queer spiritual communities are liminal communities, they have a unique
potential to tap into this power, and I believe it represents the greatest gift the queer
church offers the broader church and world.
An egalitarian community free from the oppressive forces of heterosexism, racism,
classism, and other forms of oppression that tend to spoil and corrupt Christian
community can at least come into vision through liminal queer experience. A special
camaraderie develops between those sharing liminal space and experience, which Turner
calls "communitas. "
This is a bond which transcends any socially established differentiations. Those
who share the liminal passage develop a community of the inbetween. A
significant sharing of the liminal passage creates strong egalitarian ties which level
out differences in status and station which have been established by structure." 165
The creation of this type of community, which we might rightly argue is the
eschatological hope for the church, should not be underestimated as a positive potential
of queer spiritual communities. Pastoral leaders should be mindful of this potential and
intentionally work to foster engagement in liminal relationships and practices that will
On a very basic practical level, for example, pastors may help the community
explore the assumptions about gender that they make about one another. Systemic
anxiety can be expressed when, for example, those previously understood as male or
female decide to explore a different gender expression from androgyny to gender-queer
to male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM) transsexual. If education about
transgender issues has been consistently present in a congregation and transgender
165 Ibid., 101.
persons are active in the life of the community, this anxiety can be lessened. However, it
should be noted that, generally speaking, congregations will be more comfortable with
those who fully transition or identify as transgender than with those who claim and
occupy a space in between or who choose not to disclose their stories of gender
transition. The tendency to normalize and create fixed categories by which one can label
oneself or others once-and-for-all is a constant challenge for marginal comm unities.
Pastors can aid congregations if they will intentionally stand with them in the margins
and provide a non-anxious presence. They can also help slow the normalizing tendency
if they will consistently and openly queer (i.e., the verb meaning to subvert, spoil, or
challenge) the formation of attitudes or structures based in fixity. This has application
not only for matters of gender and sexuality, but also for broader ecclesial issues.
In his book about intentional communities, Terry Veling describes the marginal
nature of intentional Christian communities. While I doubt he had churches such as
MCC in mind, I believe his description is incredibly applicable to the nature of queer
Marginal Christian communities recognize that there are many ways in which the
center no longer holds in their experience of tradition and society. They challenge
dominant orderings of patriarchy in their quest for renewed feminist expression;
they seek more inclusive and participatory structures over against hierarchical and
clericalized structures; they turn their attention to ecological issues in the face of an
overly technologized world; they are concerned with the causes of indigenous and
Third World cultures in the face of dominant Euro-centric traditions. They are
seeking alternate theologies, spiritualities, and practices casting their 'voice from
the margins over the whole social-symbolic order, questioning its rules, terms,
procedures, and practices.'" 1
166 Veling, 11.
Indeed, this language resonates with MCC's strategic plan and future vision.
MCC also fits the description of a community whose "critical attention is directed largely
at the alienation they experience from the institutional church." Metropolitan
Community Churches were birthed as communities in exile from mainstream
Christianity, which excluded sexual/gender outsiders in degrees varying from patronizing
tolerance to spiritual and physical violence. MCC churches remain marginal, in some
contexts by choice due to their commitment to queer spirituality, and in other contexts by
their uniqueness in offering a welcoming spiritual home to LGBT people. Thus, MCC
congregations "exercise what Edward Schillebeeckx calls 'a loyal opposition' or
'provisional illegality' with respect to the institutional church's current disciplines and
structures." However, here also there is a tendency to centralize and normalize.
Unfortunately, MCC congregations will often do the difficult work to deconstruct
theologies and systems that exclude their members on the basis of a gay or lesbian
identity, only to reconstruct theologies and systems that exclude other marginalized
people. Which leads me to the final strategic issue for pastoral leadership, that of
developing and nurturing a radical inclusivity and hospitality in Christian community.
Widening the Welcome — Nurturing Radical Inclusivity and Hospitality
Radical inclusivity is a core queer theological value, and the act of resisting
exclusion in all its forms is a stated goal of MCC. 169 However, we have yet to
167 Schillebeeckx, as quoted in Veling, 1 1.
168 Veling, 11.
Statement of Vision from MCC Strategic Plan, 2005, http://www.mccchurch.net/ (accessed
October 30, 2006).
completely embody this in our congregational lives. Whether it's because we get too
comfortable with who's "in" the community and simply neglect to reach out to others, or
because we have unchecked prejudices that send implicit or explicit messages of rejection
to others based on their actual or perceived race, gender or sexual expression, relationship
configuration, class, or economic status; there are gaps between our desired form of
radical inclusivity/hospitality and our practice. Pastors can do queer spiritual
communities a great service simply by naming this reality and asking questions like
"Who isn't here?" or "What would our reaction be if someone from our neighborhood
with little in common with us arrived?" Asking the questions and inviting people to
bring both their reality and their imagination into conversation with their core value of
inclusivity can be a wonderful strategy for weaving the connections between belief and
There is also a big difference between diverse people inhabiting the same physical
space for an hour or two on Sunday morning and the same people having a genuine sense
of community. Our core queer theological value of inclusivity insists on both of these
things being true. In order to nurture community between diverse people, the leaders of
queer spiritual communities have to create opportunities for relationship building. One
significant way of doing this is to provide space for and encourage people to participate
in sharing their stories. Yvette Flunder writes:
It is quite common for MCC congregations, because of our outreach, to be disconnected from
our actual geographical communities. People come to us as chosen community generally because they are
seeking queer community. The example used earlier in this paper about MCC Greater Dallas and the
homeless population surrounding their meeting place illustrates a troublesome disconnect with the struggle
and experience of other marginalized people in our neighborhoods who are not "us."
I have found that it is of vital importance that people who have been silent and
silenced far too long be given an opportunity to give voice to their struggle. Secrets
kill and silence often equals death. People often speak forth the answers to their
own issues as they talk it out in a supportive environment. It also has a purgative
effect on the teller of the story. Shadows are no longer threatening when the light
shines on them; when the secret is exposed, the demon is uncovered and rendered
powerless. The experiences that at one time horrified now become a resource from
which to draw life, both for the teller and the listener. In order for a community to
share in each other's failures and triumphs, occasions must be provided for
testifying and sharing . . . even those things that appear obvious.
Beyond the benefits Flunder describes so well, this type of storytelling creates an
opportunity for people to connect around the realities of their lives and build relationships
that are mutually respectful, understanding, and supportive. Really hearing the
experience of someone unlike us is often the very thing that opens our minds and our
hearts to connect with them in solidarity. This is demonstrated well in the recurrent
testimony of those who have changed their minds about gay and lesbian issues only after
a close friend "came out" to them about their own sexual orientation. The same is true, in
my experience, of those with no understanding of transgender experience when they
actually listen to a transgender person describe their life and struggle for authenticity.
Another thing that the pastoral leader of a queer spiritual community can do is to
help the congregation develop a welcoming atmosphere for those not yet included in the
community. For example, in his chapter about creating a genuine welcome for trans
people in communities of faith, Justin Tanis argues that intentionality and planning are
key. "You want to convey to transgendered people that we are both expected and
welcomed at your community." This means that education of the community has to
171 Flunder, 39.
172 Tanis, 122.
come first. Before they can be truly inclusive, the community must have an enlightened
understanding of gender issues and the instability of fixed gender identities. They must
be ready to use appropriate language, including pronouns that match a person's current or
preferred gender presentation. They must have planned ahead to have bathrooms and
programs that are accessible to the gender-variant (options for "men" and "women" leave
out many). They should have in place explicitly welcoming policies or statements that
refer to the transgendered. The same can be true for any other group of people that the
church wishes to make welcome.
Inclusivity can be challenging for the community when their comfort zones are
stretched and when they are forced to confront their own prejudices. Pastoral care for
those who are struggling with the demands of inclusive community should not be
neglected as a powerful way of helping the community integrate its desire for equality
and inclusion with its practice. Pastors should be attentive to the struggles people are
having, initiate safe conversations where they can honestly admit the nature of their
resistance, and pray for understanding and tolerance when these aren't coming easily. To
"naturalize" the growing pains that come along with boundary crossing can be an
affirming pastoral function that then frees people to live through the growing pain rather
than retreat from it and/or avoid dealing with it altogether.
There is also great power in the rites and sacraments of the church to help a
spiritual community envision and live into its nature as radically inclusive Christian
community. In MCC, the sacrament of communion is perhaps the best example of this.
The eucharist provides an open table where none are excluded from full participation as
their most authentic selves. The communion table is the great equalizer where there is no
first and last, no least and greatest, and where there is "enough bread and enough love for
all." These ritual elements have a tremendous potential to create meaning and to
expand the understanding of who is included in the community of faith. Pastors can use
their creative imaginations to imbue these sacraments with teaching and transforming
power that helps the community live into its best vision of itself.
Further Implications for MCC
If theology is to mean anything at all, then our theological thinking — our beliefs
about God and about faith — must find their fullest expression in our actions — the day-
to-day practices in which we engage as individual people of faith and as corporate
spiritual communities. A primary responsibility of leaders of spiritual communities is to
help them attend to this integrity between belief and praxis. In queer spiritual
communities, this means helping the congregation, and individual members of it,
articulate core queer theological values and translate those values into actions that
embody them. This requires a careful intentionality on the part of spiritual leaders, a
willingness to stretch the congregation far enough (but not too far) to attend to the gaps
that exist between their belief and their praxis, and to shape the sort of community that is
more integral. While this is a challenging task, if leaders are willing to take on their
responsibility to be intentional about it, there is tremendous potential for the community
and individual members of it to experience a spiritual transformation with benefits that
Edgard Danielsen-Morales uses this phrase to describe the fundamental needs as imagined in
the Eucharist. He is informed by the work of Latin American liberation theologian Elsa Tamez. Personal
communication, December 21, 2007.
extend far beyond themselves. If MCC congregations are to be queer spiritual
communities that claim the blessing of marginality, then MCC pastors must develop
particular skills as body theologians adept at helping people make peace with liminality,
and who will hospitably invite into that creatively charged spiritual space the most
inclusive mix of people. Perhaps most basically, this requires leaders to be
knowledgeable about the dynamics of change and confident about leading congregations
through cycles of change. It is to this important task that we will now turn.
The MCC Strategic Plan articulates this clearly in saying, "In the margins, we are blessed."
Statement of Purpose from MCC Strategic Plan, 2005, http://www.mccchurch.net/ (accessed October 30,
LEADING CONGREGATIONAL CHANGE IN QUEER CHURCHES
Dealing with change is one of the most difficult and persistent challenges facing
church communities. When change takes place, regardless of how welcome the change is
or how well it is managed, it can be easily guaranteed that a certain number of people are
likely to leave the community, either for the duration of the most tense period of the
change process or permanently. If this is true for faith communities in general, it is
exponentially truer for queer churches. The very nature of queer church, which I have
elsewhere described in detail, is to be a community in a perpetual state of significant and
intentional change. Many of the characteristics people find most difficult about change
— such as the presence of ambiguity and the destabilization of previously "known" or
presumed essential structures, identities, or roles — are core values and/or intentional
disciplines of queer churches. Consequently, it is essential for effective pastors of queer
spiritual communities to understand the dynamics of change and to develop skills at
leading change in the congregation. In this chapter, I will explore some of the
characteristics of change as it is experienced individually and corporately through the
specific lens of MCC. I will then attempt to describe some practical skills that pastors
might develop to increase their effectiveness at leading change.
One of the reasons that change is such a constant challenge for MCC is that we
aspire to be countercultural, intentionally marginal communities that exist in a constant
state of active resistance to the status quo of our society. This resistance is motivated by
the fact that the status quo of our society is upheld by unjust power structures and policies
that privilege certain people by neglecting or oppressing others. I would argue that this
resistance is a fundamental calling for Christian communities in general; however, most
churches fall significantly short of realizing these aspirations. For example, nearly every
mainstream Christian denomination today is embroiled in heated discussions about the
question of whether or not (and to what degree ) to openly welcome and affirm gay
men and lesbians in the community — debates that include very real threats of schism, if
not active follow-through on these threats from those unwilling to continue the dialogue.
This reality is rooted in resistance to change, specifically a change from the norms
enforced by the hetero-patriarchal system of domination. For MCC, this debate predates
our history. We can confidently say that we have moved further on the journey of
liberation in this regard, to a place where we have decided that we will not only welcome
and affirm individuals who self-identify as gay men and lesbians, but that we will
proudly celebrate the sacred gift of sexual love and commitment between people of the
same gender. ' ' Even further, we have decided that we will welcome and celebrate
bisexual people, transgender people, intersex people, and those who identify as queer.
These open and affirming movements are known by many names: More Light in the
Presbyterian Church U.S.A., ONA in the United Qhurch of Christ, Reconciling in the United Methodist
Church, Welcoming & Affirming in the American Baptist Church, etc. Most of them are minority
movements on the margins of these mainstream denominations, and are often not even considered
legitimate by the power structure. Further, there are degrees to which churches who consider themselves
open and affirming will include LGBT people. It is sometimes the case that gay men and lesbians who are
in active relationships will not be accepted as full members of the church or will not be permitted to
participate in various official lay leadership capacities. It is often the case that gay men and lesbians will
not be considered suitable candidates for ordination, and even in those churches that do ordain openly gay
or lesbian people, there are few local congregations that will actually call these individuals as pastor. It is
almost always the case that these open and affirming churches will not perform official marriages or
blessings of same-sex relationships. And, perhaps even more universally, these communities will be much
less tolerant of openly bisexual people, transgender people (especially those who don't "pass" well), and
people on the margins of queer community such as members of the pan-sexual leather community or those
in open or polyamorous relationships.
The nuance here is significant, as some churches only welcome self-identified, but "non-
practicing" or celibate, gay men or lesbians.
Many of our churches have also made the commitment to create communities inclusive
of those whose expressions of sexuality are non-normative in other ways and whose
relationship configurations and covenants are neither monogamous nor binary. All of
these commitments are radically countercultural to the dominant norms in the United
States, and queer churches can be proud of these aspirations and the instances in which
we have successfully lived into them. However, as I have discussed in previous chapters,
we also fall short of them when we encounter within ourselves the very prejudices that
have wounded us, prejudices that result from our own enculturation in the norms of our
racist, classist, sexist, and heterosexist society. It makes sense that change in the form of
shifting away from these various -isms, which the dominant systems and structures of
both church and society seek to monitor and reinforce at every turn, would require
significant and sustained effort. Yet, this is a task central to the calling and purpose of
queer churches, as I understand them. In order to successfully coach, companion, and
inspire churches to make these kinds of changes, pastors must become effective change
Some Dynamics of Adaptive Change in MCC
Frequently, in periods of frustration when the tension of living with change and
ambiguity become too great, church members will often come to the pastor demanding
s/he do something to "fix" whatever they perceive is wrong or broken. Unfortunately,
few (if any) of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to create authentic and
inclusive queer congregations have any quick fix, nor are they challenges that can be met
by the pastor alone. Rather, they are complicated and lengthy processes of change that
require constant evaluation, adaptation, and innovation in the community as a whole. In
their excellent book on this topic, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky categorize these
types of changes as "adaptive challenges." They write:
There are a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative
expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone
who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because
they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places
within the organization or community. Without learning new ways — changing
attitudes, values, behaviors — people can not make the adaptive leap necessary to
thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having
the people with the problem internalize the change itself.
This is precisely the type of challenge that I believe is most common in MCC
congregations, specifically as we make the attempt to become authentic queer
communities. The challenges confronting queer churches are adaptive because we
envision a type of radically inclusive and egalitarian community that does not yet exist,
and we must intentionally deconstruct the normative and normalizing structures of
dominant culture (e.g., sexism, erotophobia, biologically determined gender polarity,
heterosexism, racism, classism, etc.), which are insidious, complicated, and systemic.
This requires us to experiment, make new discoveries, and equip numerous facets of the
community to make adjustments, change attitudes and behaviors, and be intentionally
reflective in examining deeply ingrained beliefs, prejudices, and previously unquestioned
assumptions about what is valuable, ethical, and moral.
Adaptive challenges are not easy to make, for individuals or for organizations.
This is part of the reason people resist these types of changes, even when they are
Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the
Dangers of Leading, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 13.
changes necessary to bring about what those who resist them most long for. As Heifetz
and Linsky explain, "Adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges
people's habits, beliefs, and values." In queer communities, this resistance is increased
by a couple of intersecting factors. First, we are rewarded with privileges, affirmation,
and legitimization (from institutional and cultural authorities) for continuing the very
habits, beliefs, and values we want to see changed. Secondly, the alternative habits,
beliefs, and values we hope will replace existing norms are often deemed sinful or
immoral by society at large, our friends and families whose opinions matter to us, and
even our own internal voices. Additionally, all adaptive change "asks [people] to take a
loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures. Because
adaptive change forces people to question and perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it
also challenges their sense of competence." Heifetz and Linksy are correct when they
observe, "Loss, disloyalty, and feeling incompetent: That's a lot to ask. No wonder
people resist." It is important for MCC pastors to acknowledge that people are risking
a great deal in the effort to create queer spiritual communities and to treat with respect
and sensitivity the feelings that result from that risking.
Let me provide an example that builds on one offered in the previous chapter and
which engages a number of these aspects of change theory. My congregation embraces
the core value of inclusivity that is held in common by MCC congregations around the
world and which is a core queer theological value. We further describe what we mean by
178 Ibid., 30.
this with the claim that "We commit ourselves by word and deed to dismantle barriers
between individuals and between individuals and God." One of the aspects of
inclusion that we have attempted to work for in the past several years is the issue of
including transgender members. I earlier described some of the ways we have attempted
to remove structural and attitudinal barriers for our transgender members. However, we
occasionally fall short of our own best efforts when we confront within ourselves sexism
and transphobia characterized most fundamentally by an extraordinary discomfort with
ambiguity. I was recently approached by a member of the community who said in
exasperation, "We're not inclusive like we say we want to be." Internally, I thought,
"You're absolutely right about that; what are you going to do about it?" Instead, I asked
her to sit down with me to discuss some examples of specific situations that we might be
able to address together. She reminded me about her partner's experience of being
excluded by the men's discussion group. Additionally, this couple is adopting two
young children who have begun calling the woman's partner "Daddy," because the
partner's self understanding is as a "father figure" in their lives. This has also met with
some disapproval from other members of the community who are uncomfortable with the
transgression of same-sex parental norms that this type of role identification implies.
Some women have protested this and indicated they thought it was "too confusing" for
1 Q 1
"Core Values," Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia.
See pages 67-8 for the full explanation of this case study.
It is important to note that there are normalizing tendencies within any homogenized group of
people. The desire for clear boundaries and easy categorization is one that leads to a certain stability
people find comforting. LGBT couples are far from being immune to creating their own systems of
domination that further exclude and marginalize others.
the boys. Ironically, this is the very same claim that had been leveled at the primary
complainant many years ago when she and her same-sex partner had children, though at
that time it was because people thought it was confusing for her children to have two
women as parents. Incidentally, they found (as do most parents of whatever gender and
sexual orientation) that being good parents has more to do with the quality of love,
nurture, and support they are able to provide than any personal characteristic they may or
may not have. Nevertheless, the reaction of this woman who objected to the use of the
word "Daddy" illustrates the insidious nature of gender rigidity and relational
Several aspects of this situation are worthy of comment. It is noticeable that the
woman who initially approached me had identified a problem, wanted a solution, and
wanted me to both discover what that solution was and implement it. She was looking
for a technical fix to an adaptive challenge. Initially, she also wanted to give this work to
me — the authority figure — rather than take on any responsibility herself for working
on the solution. This response is common, as Heifetz and Linsky note,
People expect you to get right in there and fix things, to take a stand and resolve
the problem. After all, that is what people in authority are paid to do. When you
fulfill their expectations, they will call you admirable and courageous, and this is
flattering. But challenging their expectations of you requires even more
It is indeed tempting to try to fix problems like this and thus demonstrate one's
competency as a leader. However, because this is not a problem with a technical fix,
trying to offer one is counterproductive. "By trying to solve adaptive challenges for
184 Ibid., 127.
people, at best you will reconfigure it as a technical problem and create some short-term
relief. But the issue will not have gone away. It will surface again." In this instance,
it was important for me to listen, to explore some potential ways to begin addressing the
immediate problem, and to make some observations about the larger and more systemic
issues of sexism and transphobia that perpetuate the types of attitudes and behaviors that
were clearly not inclusive. It was also important that I was able to "give the work
back" to this woman, her partner, and the larger community. Not that I would be a
disinterested or detached party. On the contrary, I will and have been very involved;
however, solving the larger adaptive challenge is work that can only be done
collaboratively. I will later return to a more detailed discussion of leadership style, which
values collaboration as a primary relational resource.
In the case of the mens' discussion group, it is also interesting to note the multiple
levels of privilege that must be deconstructed. The group is fairly homogenously
comprised of white, upper-middle class men who identify as gay males. The primary
common obstacle they have faced on their spiritual journeys has to do with the
heterosexism they have encountered in the church and society. I believe they would
identify this as the -ism that has marginalized and wounded them. They sought out the
community of MCC first and foremost because they wanted to find a community that
would radically welcome and celebrate them as gay men. The privilege of heterosexism
was thus the privilege they needed to deconstruct in order to find a comfortable place for
185 Ibid., 123.
Chapter 6 of Heifetz and Linsky contains a detailed and very helpful discussion of how to give
the work back, which includes strategies of "making observations, asking questions, offering interpretations,
and taking actions." I will return to this discussion later in this paper. Ibid., 123-139.
themselves to participate most authentically in the church. It is important to note that this
urge, originating out of self-interest, is natural. Most of us find our primary actions
determined by a care/concern for ourselves or those we love. That having been said, we
can also observe that oppressed people who achieve this objective too often stop their
deconstruction of privilege and resistance to the oppression of the marginalized after this
feat has been achieved for themselves. For example, white, upper-middle-class, gay men
do not, on the whole, immediately think they need to notice or resist sexism, racism,
classism, or transphobia.
At this point, it may be helpful to explore briefly how privilege functions. There
are many layers to the privileges we are granted by hetero-patriarchal society based on a
number of factors, including our gender (male is judged better than female, congruity
between biological sex and gender identity is judged better than incongruity, stability at
one end of the male- female spectrum is judged better than somewhere in the middle), our
economic status (richer is judged better than poorer), the pigmentation of our skin (lighter
is judged better in most racialized systems), our nationality, our sexual orientation
(heterosexual is judged better than homosexual, homosexual is often judged better than
bisexual), our physical appearance and ability (pretty is judged better than ugly — though
what determines this is highly dependent on culture, able-bodied is judged preferable to
having a disability), partnership status (monogamous and married are generally judged
Ironically, it is often the case that gay men are judged most harshly for their transgression of
gender norms (e.g. acting in ways that are more feminine than masculine, or becoming a passive or
receptive party in the act of sexual intercourse, which is traditionally viewed as the role appropriate for a
woman.) Sexism and misogyny may indeed be the foundation for what we commonly refer to as
"homophobia." This is not, in my experience, something that gay men are automatically aware of, though
many of them who have come to understand themselves as feminists are quite adept at exploring the
nuanced relationship between these intersecting oppressions.
better than single, polyamorous, or promiscuous), etc. These intersecting privileges have
been described as pyramids or hierarchies of privilege, though they are much more
chaotically interconnected than a linear or hierarchical system suggests. It is not always
the case that someone who may deconstruct one or more of these privileges is necessarily
aware of how others of them function. And it is also the case that those of us who are
enculturated in a society based on all of these privileges have internalized all of them to
some extent. We may or may not choose to act on them, but we must acknowledge their
presence and persistent, subtle power.
I mentioned earlier that white, upper-middle-class, gay men do not automatically
think they need to deconstruct racism, sexism, classism, or transphobia. In drawing
attention to this matter, I do not in any way mean to judge these men more harshly than
any other segment of humanity. I could just as easily discuss the ways in which white,
upper-middle-class, lesbian women do not automatically think they need to recognize,
understand, or actively resist classism, transphobia, or the unique ways in which
homophobia functions in the lives of gay men. Or the ways in which some transgender
people continue to make strong moral judgments against gays and lesbians. However, I
use the example of white, upper-middle-class, gay men because this is the primary
constituency of our mens' discussion group, and the presenting problem of them
excluding the male-identified person in question brings these issues of intersecting
oppressions to the surface. I cannot overstate how central this dynamic is to the creation
of queer spiritual communities. Overcoming the complex intersection of oppressions is
probably the largest adaptive challenge we face in MCC. We will not be able to become
the type of communities we know we are called to be — radically inclusive, egalitarian,
hospitable, and spiritually vibrant communities — unless we remain vigilant about
monitoring and managing the adaptive challenges that arise when we encounter our own
prejudices and the exclusive attitudes and behaviors they promote. In this specific case,
some observations need to be made and explored that draw these connections and point
out the gap between the groups' aspirational objectives and their apparent inability to
successfully achieve them.
To provide one additional example on this same general topic, I have another
transgender member who has recently begun her real life test, i.e., the time when her
gender presentation will more closely than ever before match her self-understanding and
she will present female in nearly every facet of her life. Prior to her coming out in this
way, she had a male name and presented male in our congregation; I was the only one
who knew she identified as transgender. Presenting male, she participated actively in a
small group educational series we were facilitating at this time. A number of weeks ago,
she began participating with her new chosen name and a female gender presentation. I
was aware that this change was perceived by some other members of the class as
disorienting. Primarily, I think it invoked their feelings of incompetency. They wanted
to trust their intuition that this was the same person they had known and engaged with for
weeks, and they had doubts and questions they weren't sure how to raise. They felt silly
and anxious that they would make a mistake by using the wrong name or slipping up on a
pronoun. It was destabilizing because they intuitively felt like the dynamics of the group
had changed, yet there was no change in the personalities around the table. Because I
was unaware that she was making her debut on this particular evening, I improvised a
strategy to help the group live through this change in the short term. I hoped also, and
perhaps most importantly, to ensure that this experience was an empowering and
affirming one for our courageous transgender sister. My strategy was to model an
appropriate use of language by warmly greeting her by her chosen name, and by finding a
way to naturally use a sentence in which I could refer to her in the third person and
thereby model correct (feminine) pronoun usage. This seemed to be effective at
addressing these particular issues of concern. It is important to note that they were short-
term technical fixes about subjects of anxiety in other class members, but they were only
minor aspects of the larger adaptive challenge we face in becoming a truly trans-inclusive
group. As Heifetz and Linsky note, most significant changes involve both technical fixes
and adaptive challenges. Strategically dealing with the technical aspects of the
problem well can buy leaders time to help the organization deal with the more
challenging adaptive aspects. Interestingly, the following week in the class, this
person newly in transition was not present. Feeling somewhat more free to explore her
discomfort with this change, one woman in the group confessed that she had thought she
dealt with her transphobia and her discomfort with people in gender transition many
years ago when she came to know and love another transwoman in the community.
However, she admitted that she was now feeling similar feelings of resistance to gender
change in this circumstance. Part of the reason for her renewed resistance is due to the
fact that this particular transperson brings her two children to church. To her credit, the
woman who was feeling uncomfortable was able to recognize some unchecked biases she
had, not about whether it was appropriate for someone to make a gender transition, but
188 Ibid., 22.
189 Ibid., 18.
about the fitness of a transperson to be a parent. She was also able to articulate the fact
that she did not like to admit this judgmentalism about herself, and that she was eager to
explore this as an opportunity to challenge herself to become more inclusive.
The example of transgender inclusion is only one example of many possible that
provides a glimpse into the complex adaptive changes facing MCC congregations which
aspire to become radically inclusive queer spiritual communities. However, it is one of
the best examples available, because it very quickly illustrates the types of prejudices,
attitudes, and behaviors that must be challenged in order for congregations to live into
their core values and best vision of themselves. Deconstructing the myriad normativities
monitored and reinforced by the white, hetero-patriarchical traditions of our church and
society is a huge task, and yet it is perhaps the foundational and most persistent task of
queer church, as I understand it.
Leadership Styles and Strategies
Earlier, I mentioned my conviction that solving the larger adaptive challenges
facing MCC is work that can only be done collaboratively. This recognition becomes
extraordinarily important in determining appropriate leadership styles and strategies. It
seems important to note at the beginning of this discussion that there are a number of
different leadership styles, many of which have a lot to do with personality type and
individual experience. I do not intend to say that there is only one leadership style or set
of strategies appropriate for leaders in MCC. However, I do want to explore some
aspects of leadership styles and strategies that might be important for pastors in MCC to
incorporate into their repertoire. Because adaptive challenges are complex challenges
that a leader cannot fix from on high with a technical remedy, leading change in a
congregation requires more mutual and collaborative strategies of leadership than
typically encouraged by more traditional (and patriarchal ) understandings of how to
exercise pastoral authority. Heifetz and Linsky put it this way:
In mobilizing adaptive work, you have to engage people adjusting their unrealistic
expectations, rather than try to satisfy them as if the situation were amenable
primarily to a technical remedy. You have to counteract their exaggerated
dependency and promote their resourcefulness. This takes an extraordinary level
of presence, time, and artful communication ...
Scott Cormode characterizes the more traditional use of authority as structural
authority which relies on structural resources in order to be effective. Structural
resources include such things as hierarchical systems, laws (or by-laws), and material
resources. Structural power is the power to compel and structural authority is "delineated
and unambiguous." A typical response to the question "Why are we changing this?"
from a person rooted in structural understandings of power and authority might be
something like, "Because I said so!" or "Because I'm the Pastor, that's why!" In my
opinion, it is very rare that pastoral authority needs to rely primarily on structural
resources and their coercive use of power. Rather, pastoral authority more appropriately
draws on cultural authority and cultural resources. Cormode describes cultural resources
as resources that must be interpreted by a leader who helps make meaning of them.
It is important to note that traditionally patriarchal ways of exercising power are employed and
perpetuated by all types of people in a culture that is hetero-patriarchally normative, including people of all
191 Heifetz and Linsky, 15.
Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters,
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 67.
Cultural resources include symbols, stories, signs, and other building blocks that
construct meaning and "ground the congregation in its own idiom." Leaders
exercising cultural authority serve an interpretive function, in part, because "cultural
resources cannot be unambiguously accumulated" and "are more ethereal than structural
resources." 194 Whereas structural resources often use compelling and coercive power,
cultural resources generally rely on persuasive power. Cultural authority is not given
because hierarchical structures assign and demand it, but rather because it is freely given
by those who recognize it. 195 Cultural authority is persuasive and rhetorical. Pastors who
use this type of authority have an opportunity to inspire their congregations to change and
grow, but not force them. According to Cormode, this is a more appropriate type of
pastoral authority, and relying on such cultural resources allows pastors to exercise a
fundamentally different type of leadership than the top-down model common in our
society at large and, perhaps in particular, in the corporate world of business.
Collaborative leadership characterized by the use of power with and not over
others also requires leaders to develop skills at being leader-participants. In other words,
pastors need to find ways that they can both be a part of the group working on change
together and offer the types of leadership that congregations expect and need from them.
Heifetz and Linsky use the metaphors of dance floors and balconies in order to describe
193 Ibid., 69.
194 Ibid., 67.
195 Ibid., 68.
196 Ibid., 69.
Let's say you are dancing in a big ballroom with a balcony up above. A band
plays and people swirl all around you to the music, filling up your view. Most of
your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to
make sure that you don't collide with dancers close by. You let yourself get
carried away by the music, your partner, and the moment. . . . But if you had gone
up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a
very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. For example,
you might have observed that when slow music played, only some people danced;
when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never
seemed to dance at all.. . . Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself
out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can
gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is
by distancing yourself from the fray. . . . [And,] if you want to affect what is
happening, you have to return to the dance floor. Staying on the balcony in a safe
observer role is as much a prescription for ineffectuality as never achieving that
perspective in the first place.
This is an important skill for pastors to develop, being able to be both a collaborative
participant and a leader-observer. This is also a concept deeply rooted in some of the
core values of queer theology (e.g., mutuality, fluidity, etc.) that we are seeking to
integrate into congregational praxis. For this reason, it is all the more important for
pastors to learn and model this practice.
Cormode argues that one of the primary responsibilities of spiritual leaders is to
help communities interpret and construct meaning. As his book title suggests, this act of
"making spiritual sense" draws on cultural resources and engages the community in
reflecting on its own core values and experiences in order to understand the dynamics of
change and navigate desired change successfully. To explore one of the potential ways
of doing this, let's return to the practice of giving the work back to the people, described
by Heifetz and Linsky. As I mentioned earlier, pastors can rarely (if ever) effectively
197 Heifetz and Linsky, 53.
manage adaptive change by rendering decisions from on high; rather, they must work
more mutually and collaboratively with the congregation. This involves giving the work
back to those who must take responsibility for it and reinterpreting it as a joint endeavor
and a shared opportunity for growth. Several strategies can facilitate this process as well
as help construct the type of meaning that will advance the change process. Perhaps most
importantly, the pastor has the opportunity to make some observations, simple
"statements that reflect back to people their behavior or attempt to describe current
conditions." For example, opportunities to make observations about an apparent lack
of alignment between core values and enacted behavior often present themselves in MCC.
It can sometimes be helpful for leaders to draw the group's attention to the gaps that exist
between what we have articulated as our goal or vision and how we are actually behaving
in a given situation, or, in other words, gaps between our theological beliefs and our lived
praxis. Some examples of this strategy were explored in the previous chapter. It is also
true that these observations are not always welcome. There are times, however, when
they are precisely what is needed. Because leaders exercising this strategy are not doing
so from above, from a position of structural authority, but rather with, from a position of
having been granted cultural authority, there are ways to make this type of difficult
observation effectively. Two possible approaches may be helpful: asking questions and
offering interpretations. Asking questions invites the group itself to evaluate and
interpret the situation together; it presents an opportunity for people to describe
198 Ibid., 135.
199 Ibid., 136-7.
themselves and articulate for themselves both the reality and the presenting challenges. If
the group seems reluctant or is unable to do this, offering tentative interpretations and
inviting the group to respond can advance the conversation and analysis.
The construction of meaning, which is an important aspect of leading
congregational change, is about more than only analyzing and describing the current
situation or deconstructing behaviors, attitudes, or structures that may be problematic.
One must also help the congregation construct new behaviors, attitudes, and structures
that more accurately reflect their aspirations. For example, Cormode argues that leaders
cannot discredit old behaviors, ideas, values, etc. "without creating a new way of being to
replace it." 200 This has particular implications for MCC in terms of how we integrate the
core values of queer theology into our congregational praxis. In my observation, there
are many existing instances in which this has not occurred successfully. Many
congregations have done excellent work at deconstructing, discrediting, and de-
legitimizing exclusive, homophobic, and erotophobic theologies and church structures.
We have identified some definite problems, theoretically and practically. However,
many in our churches fall back on old bo4y-denying and erotophobic thoughts and
behaviors in times of crisis or overwhelming change. This is likely because we have not
yet done a very good job of reconstructing useful and effective ways of integrating
sexuality and spirituality. Even though we have articulated the latter as one of our
primary missions, we still have work to do to create congregational cultures that
consistently practice creative ways of doing this together. We would also do well to note
200 Cormode, xvii.
that how we engage people on this task of reconstruction is as important as the content or
character of the new structures we co-create together.
There is one additional aspect of leading change specifically in queer
communities that it seems necessary to explore. Because queer churches intentionally
attend to some of the more uncomfortable dynamics of change — including the presence
of ambiguity, the discomfort of marginality, and the deconstruction of deeply ingrained
patterns of belief and behavior reinforced by dominant culture — leaders need to be
attentive to the feelings of loss and disorientation people are having. I sometimes refer to
this function of pastoral leadership in queer churches as being a "chaplain of the gaps."
What I mean by this is that often pastors of MCC congregations are called upon to simply
be present with people in the margins or to companion people through the ambiguity they
experience when previously presumed stable, fixed, or impermeable identities or
boundaries are queered/transgressed. Until there is a new equilibrium established, people
and the community as a whole have to learn how to live in a state or through stages of
liminality. Understanding the feelings of fear, anger, loss, and anxiety that are
common in this stage, leaders might seek to develop certain relational skills whereby they
help attend to those feelings. By providing a non-anxious presence, pastors can absorb
some of the anxiety and help individuals and groups more comfortably acknowledge and
work with/through the feelings of fear and loss. It is also incumbent upon leaders to both
recognize and use the incredible creative potential of liminality for congregational
See pages 77-81 for a more complete description, in which I have argued that liminality is a
constant feature of queer church. As soon as a new equilibrium is established in the sense of having a new
stable identity or norm, which we know from experience eventually marginalizes others, we must then seek
to deconstruct the new norm in the greater cause of creating even more inclusive communities.
development. One of ways of tapping into this potential is to understand and take
advantage of the special camaraderie that can develop between people sharing this
experience. Leaders who are able to identify, call attention to, and nurture this naturally
emerging egalitarian way of relating can help queer communities draw upon it
strategically as a queer cultural resource.
One practical strategy for this involves the art of helping promote and strengthen
individual relationships. The bonds of connection people naturally experience in times of
liminality can also be intentionally created by leaders who draw attention to points of
connection that might otherwise be overlooked. Joyce Fletcher discusses a practice of
"translating" people for others as one way of working towards this. If two dissimilar
members of a group are describing an experience that they do not realize is shared, or
worse, that they have judged negatively for the other person, the leader can make
observations about the similarities or points of commonality. They may also recast one
person's experiences in light of the other person's experience in order to draw parallels
that may not have been originally noticed. In a similar strategy, when leaders realize that
certain people in a group are being dismissed, they may help "translate" their opinions or
experience to others so that they do not dismiss the content. This has the dual effect of
building connections and, if it happens in the group context, of providing additional
language and communication skills for those whose words may have been misunderstood
or disregarded or "disappeared" because of negative prejudice based on a personal
Joyce K. Fletcher, Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work,
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), 52.
203 Ibid., 3.
characteristic. As spiritual leaders in MCC become conversant with the complex
intersection of oppressions, this can be an incredible relational tool for helping bridge
different segments of a diverse community. Because deconstructing normative privilege
is a queer activity and because this becomes most difficult when we understand and
honor the complex nature of privilege that forms at the intersection of oppressions, this
may be one of the most important skills for leaders to develop. If leaders can help the
community recognize the similar and dissimilar ways in which different segments of
minority communities experience injustice and oppression, as well as the ways we
ourselves oppress and exclude others, we can then begin to deconstruct the privileges
built upon these oppressions. Once we begin to deconstruct the normative privileges
without simply trying to gain access to the privileges for ourselves, we will make
significant progress on our journey to becoming authentic queer communities.
Relational practices, like those described briefly above, are incredibly compatible with
pastoral leadership that relies on cultural authority. These practices may be among the
best resources for leading adaptive change in queer congregations.
The Pastoral Art of Improvisation
Although I have described some examples of the dynamics of adaptive change in
MCC, as well as some of the types of skills and strategies leaders may employ to help
lead change successfully, I am also very aware that based on the nature of adaptive
4 1 am indebted to Kelly Brown Douglas, Carter Heyward, Robert Goss, and Mark Jordan for
their panel discussion at a recent conference called Queering Church at the Boston University School of
Theology (April 17-19, 2007), after which I came to understand more clearly just how important this
qualifying sentence "without simply trying to gain access to the privileges for ourselves''' is for queer
change and the nature of queer communities in constant transition, leading change in
MCC congregations will always be an improvisational art. In order to improvise well,
leaders must try to understand the complexities of what is happening in the community,
in individual members of it, and in themselves. I have argued that one of the fundamental
changes queer churches want to make is to become inclusive communities. It is
important to realize that the prejudices we have to confront and resist do not only exist
"out there" in the broader church and world, they also exist "in here" in our hearts and in
our congregations. Quite understandably, this means that we will sustain some pain as
we go about our work of becoming queer churches. This is where our experience as
pastors can help us. We know what it is like to be present with people who are hurting,
people who are dying, people who are grieving. We know how to be a non-anxious
presence with people and how to live with them into the unknown and unpredictable. We
would do well not to compartmentalize these skills as ways only of providing pastoral
care, but also as cultural and relational resources for leading change and queering the
Finally, it is also worthy of note that while leading change in queer spiritual
communities can be an incredibly exciting activity, it can also be exhausting. It is
imperative that pastors and other leaders are attentive to their own needs for spiritual
nurture and support, for friendships outside of the church, for balance, beauty, sex,
laughter, rest, and all of the other things that inspire and sustain our creativity and work.
Like the core values of queer churches, this is also a statement that is aspirational in
nature. It is my hope that keeping our goals ever before us may remind us where we
hope to be heading, and evoke our gratitude for the moments in which we glimpse
ourselves and our churches actually moving in the right direction.
One of the challenges I experience in having a conversation like this about what it
means to queer the church and how we might most effectively go about doing so in MCC
is the constant need to stretch to maintain optimum connection. For example, in this
thesis I began with a task I wish was unnecessary — i.e., defining the word queer —
because, no matter how much I wish it were otherwise, establishing a common
vocabulary is a necessary prerequisite for allowing the greatest number of people possible
to take part in the conversation. If this definitional work was unnecessary and a shared
understanding of the meaning and potential of "queer" were a given, obviously the
conversation could be advanced much further. However, since this is not the case, we
must stretch backwards in order to invite and encourage others to journey with us even as
we stretch forward to avoid being left behind as the conversation progresses. This is one
explanation for the troublesome gap that seems always to exist between the academy
(where prerequisites can be required) and the church, a gap I believe pastors are called to
bridge. Another example of this stretching exercise that is more practically related to my
experience of ministry in MCC has to do with the simultaneous need we have to provide
triage for the constant stream of people that trickle into our churches deeply wounded by
homophobic church and society, and those who have had sufficient time for healing and
are eager to explore the more radical aspects of queer spirituality. For example, it is
difficult in one congregation to have a deeply meaningful conversation about the ethics of
polyamory or the queer nature of Christ when some of the participants in that
conversation are still struggling with the question "Can I be both gay and Christian?" or
"Does God really love me?" Yet, this is the task before us, characterized by both
challenge and opportunity.
I am convinced that pastors and other spiritual leaders in MCC can help
congregations more broadly and thoroughly integrate the insights and core values of
queer theology into congregational life. It will require of us a courageous commitment to
being intentional about analyzing the ways we are actually living as the church and
critiquing the ways in which our practices do not reflect our core values or best desires.
The things we have learned about healing the toxic divide between spirituality and
sexuality and body and soul are not lessons limited in their application to matters of sex
and gender. The skills we have developed that permit us to deconstruct hetero-patriarchal
privilege are skills desperately needed to deconstruct the other normative privileges
(including those that benefit us) that perpetuate injustice, as well as the complex
intersection of oppressions in which we all find ourselves living. The insights we have
gained about the sacred value of transgressing rigidity and exposing the inadequacy of
binarisms are insights desperately needed in a world plagued by so many wars and
divisions. MCC has some unique contributions to make to the world, and our grassroots
history of living and breathing and deconstructing and constructing and reconstructing
queer theology may be one of the greatest. My earnest hope is that we will claim this as a
calling and be as relentless as we are resourceful in living it faithfully.
"ACT UP Capsule History," http://www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html.
Adam, Barry D. "From Liberation to Transgression and Beyond: Gay, Lesbian and Queer
Studies at the Turn of the Century." In Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies.
Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, 2002.
Althaus-Reid, Marcella. Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and
Politics. London: Routledge, 2000.
. The Queer God. London: Routledge, 2003.
Altman, Dennis. Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation; with new introduction by
Jeffrey Weeks and new afterword by the author. New York: New York
University Press, 1993.
Bass, Dorothy C. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. Edited by
Dorothy C. Bass and Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 2002.
Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?"
Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLAJ 1 10, no. 3
(May 1995): 343-349.
Berryman, Phillip. Liberation Theology: Essential Facts about the Revolutionary
Movement in Latin America— and Beyond. Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
Burton-Christie, Douglas. "Into the Body of Another: Eros, Embodiment and Intimacy
with the Natural World." Anglican Theological Review 81 (1999): 13-37.
Butler, Judith. "Changing the Subject: Judith Butler's Politics of Radical
Resignification," interview with Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham. In The Judith
Butler Reader. Edited by Sara Salih with Judith Butler. Maiden, Massachusetts:
. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:
Carson, Timothy L. "Liminal Reality and Transformational Power: Pastoral
Interpretation and Method." Journal of Pastoral Theology 7 (Summer 1997): 99-
Chauncey, George. "Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities
and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era." In Hidden
from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Bauml
Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: NAL Books,
. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male
World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Cohen, Cathy J. "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of
Queer Politics?" In Black Queer Studies: A Critican Anthology. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2005.
Cormode, Scott. Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters.
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.
D'Emilio, John. "Gay Politics and Community in San Francisco Since World War II." In
Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin
Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: NAL
Dykstra, Craig, and Dorothy C. Bass. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in
Christian Life. Edited by Dorothy C. Bass and Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Eerdman's, 2002.
Dynes, Wayne R., Ed. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Garland, New York: Taylor &
Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louisville, Kentucky:
Westminster John Knox, 1996.
Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis
Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Fletcher, Joyce K. Disappearing Acts : Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.
Flunder, Yvette A. Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion.
Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. 1st American
Ed.; New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Galindo, Israel. The Hidden Lives of Congregations : Discerning Church Dynamics.
Herndon, Virginia: Alban, 2004.
Glaser, Chris. Coming Out as Sacrament. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press,
Goss, Robert. Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. San Francisco:
. Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002.
and Mona West, Eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible.
Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000.
Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Updated and Expanded;
Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.
Harrison, Beverly Wildung. "Human Sexuality and Mutuality." In Christian Feminism:
Visions of a New Humanity. Edited by Judith L. Weidman. San Francisco: Harper
Helminiak, Daniel A. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. San Francisco:
Alamo Square Press, 1994.
Human Rights Campaign Official Website, http://hrc.org.
Hunt, Mary. "Roundtable Discussion: Same-Sex Marriage." Journal of Feminist Studies
in Religion 20, no. 2 (2004): 83-1 17.
Heifetz, Ronald A., and Martin Linsky. Leadership on the Line : Staying Alive through
the Dangers of Leading. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Internet Movie Database Description of Rent (2005).
Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University
Jeffreys, Sheila. The Lesbian Heresy: a Feminist Perspective on the Lesbian Sexual
Revolution. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 1993.
Johnson, E. Patrick. "'Quare' Studies, Or (almost) Everything I Know about Queer
Studies I Learned from My Grandmother," In Black Queer Studies: A Critican
Anthology. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005.
Kinnamon, David and Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Things
about Christianity ... and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books,
Lauritsen, John, and David Thorstad. The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, 1864-
1935. Rev. Edition; Ojai, California: Times Change Press, 1995.
Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. New
York: Bantam, 1987.
Lugones, Maria. "Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System." Hypatia
MCC of Greater Dallas "About Us", http://www.mccgd.org/content/leadership.asp.
MCC's Core Values as outlined in Strategic Plan, http://www.mccchurch.org.
MCC's Statement of Vision from MCC Strategic Plan. 2005. http://www.mccchurch.org/.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, http://m-w.com.
McNeil, John J. The Church and the Homosexual. Kansas City: Sheed, Andrews, and
Mitulski, Jim. "Ezekiel Understands AIDS, AIDS Understands Ezekiel, or Reading the
Bible with HIV." In Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. Edited
by Goss, Robert E. and Mona West. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000.
National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce Official Website, http://thetaskforce.org.
Padgug, Robert. "Sexual Matters: Rethinking Sexuality in History." In Hidden from
History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Bauml
Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: NAL Books,
Pauw, Amy Plantinga. "Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices." In
Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. Edited by Dorothy
C. Bass and Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's, 2002.
Porter, H. Boone, Jr. "Liminal Mysteries: Some Writings by Victor Turner." Anglican
Theological Review 57, no. 2 (April 1975): 219.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of
Women in Culture and Society 5 (summer 1980): 631-60.
"Roundtable Discussion: Same-Sex Marriage." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion
20, no. 2 (2004): 83-1 17.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: A.A. Levine Books,
Scanzoni, Letha Dawson and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Is the Homosexual My
Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,
Schneider, Laurel. "Queer Theory." In Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation.
Edited by A. K. A. Adam. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000.
Stone, Ken, Ed. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press,
Stryker, Susan. "Queer Nation," December, 2004. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, http://www.glbtq.com/social-
sciences/queer_nation . html .
Stuart, Elizabeth. Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference.
Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2003.
Tanis, Justin. Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith. Cleveland:
Pilgrim Press, 2003.
Thistlethwaite, Susan Brooks and Mary Potter Engel, ed. Lift Every Voice: Constructing
Christian Theologies from the Underside. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.
Tolbert, Mary Ann. "Foreward." In Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible.
Edited by Goss, Robert.
Veling, Terry A. Living in the Margins: Intentional Communities and the Art of
Interpretation. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1996.
Weeks, Jeffrey. Sexuality and its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, & Modern Sexualities.
Boston: Routlege & K. Paul, 1985.
Wilson, Nancy. Our Trible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible. San Francisco:
y^ at- ^~7
EDS/WESTON JESUIT LIBRARY
3 0135 00264 7046